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Labor Union Alleges Retaliation, Harassment by County Supervisors

Special to Spotlight, By Terry Witt

Levy County Coordinator Wilbur Dean and unnamed supervisors were accused Thursday of retaliating against county union employees at the road department that filed a grievance alleging county commissioners illegally changed employee health insurance coverage and offered a wage hike without contract negotiations.

Ronnie M. Burris, Business Manager for Laborers International Union of North American Local 630, said notes left on employee vehicle windshields and threats being made against union members wouldn’t be tolerated and could lead to complaints being filed with the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC), an agency that mediates public and private disputes involving unions and employers.

“I’m not going to tolerate that. I’ll be up front and honest with you,” Burris said as he sat across the table from Dean. “I take that personal; someone messes with one of my members, then I take that real personal. I don’t like people messin’ with my members and notes being left intentionally on vehicles and threats being made; it’s not kosher with me.”

Burris said road department supervisors have told union members that the controversy over county health insurance and pay raises was caused by the union and the union has to go, which Burris said is also a violation of labor law. Burris said he wants to maintain the same good relationship between county government and Local 630 that has always existed, but he said statements of this nature are a violation of Chapter 447 in Florida law.

Burris asked Dean to explain to his management team that if they continue to claim the union is the cause of the trouble or they continue to “bother members” over this issue, a complaint would be filed with PERC.

“And I think Wayne (Helsby, county labor attorney) will explain that violation of Chapter 447 (Florida labor law) to your supervisors. I’m sure he’ll be happy to explain that. I don’t want it to get that far. I don’t want it to escalate,” Burris added. Wayne Helsby is labor attorney for the county commission. He is associated with Allen, Norton & Blue, a Miami firm specializing in labor law.

Dean disputed Burris’s claim he had used his authority as county coordinator to harass union employees at the road department by changing their work schedules. Dean said he took the allegation personal. He said harassing employees was never his intent. He said he informed supervisors they were to ensure all calls for road maintenance were answered between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. He said he gave his supervisors discretion to change schedules as they saw fit. “Well, I never thought about who was in the union or who the employees were. I just thought about the need we had,” Dean said. Dean didn’t address allegations that notes had been left on windshields or that employees were told the union was at fault for the problems with employee health insurance or that threats were made to individual union members.

He told Burris he would meet with county commissioners and their labor attorney, Wayne Helsby, in a legal “shade meeting” that isn’t open to the public. They would meet concerning the specific requests for changes to the contract that Burris made earlier in the meeting. Dean said the county would respond within seven days. The requested changes included giving road department employees a voucher payment of $175 instead of $150 to purchase a pair of work boots once a year. Union Steward Jimmy Willis, Sr. said it’s difficult to purchase quality pair of Red Wing boots for $150.

Burris also asked for a contract change that would allow employees who fill-in as supervisors for a day or more to be paid full supervisor salaries while they handle those duties. Under the current contract the higher pay doesn’t kick in until after 40 hours. Burris also wants the county commission to re-institute step increases for pay that once existed but had been given up.

Many county employees were angered when the county commission adopted a new health insurance plan on July 18 that forced employees to pay for family coverage that had been previously paid by the commission. The county commission used the insurance savings to provide pay raises ranging from 2 percent to 10 percent. The county didn’t negotiate the contract changes with LIUNA Local 630 or with the International Association of Firefighters Local 4069 representing ambulance paramedics, EMT’s and firefighters as required by law, the unions allege.

The county commission responded by withdrawing their original offer and adopting a similar insurance package that wiped out all the pay raises and continued to require employees to pay for most of their family coverage, a major expense. Many employees reportedly have since dropped their family coverage because the high cost.

The meeting on Thursday with LIUNA Local 630 was aimed in part at starting contract negotiations for the new fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1 but also to begin talking about the grievance filed by the union. The grievance calls on the county to maintain the past practice of paying the employee’s health care costs including dependent coverage and for county commissioners to follow Chapter 447 in state statutes and negotiate in good faith any changes to employee rates of pay, hours of employment and other conditions of employment.

IAFF Local 4069 President Katy Yanok was present for Thursday’s meeting between LIUNA Local 630, Dean and County Human Resource Director Jacqueline Martin. IAFF Local 4069 will meet with Dean and his negotiating team on at 8 a.m. on Sept. 14 at the Department of Public Safety complex at 1251 NE County Road 343 south of Bronson off CR 337.

The county commission’s insurance plan offer on July 18 capped the county’s contribution for each employee at $9,512, a reduction from the previous $12,488, which had placed the county fifth in the state in health insurance contributions. With the new insurance package, Dean said the county was dropped from 5th to 9th place among 47 surveyed by the Florida Association of Counties.

County commissioners are attempting to reduce their deficit spending. The insurance plan adopted by the county in August leaves commissioners with a $1.1 million deficit for the coming fiscal year. But the county says if it manages to control its deficit spending the county commission potentially could adopt a balanced budget in the 2019. But the unions say the deficit spending is not the fault of employees and they shouldn’t be punished for the county commission’s mismanagement of its budget.

The big question is whether commissioners will give county employees a pay raise to replace what was lost when the unions challenged the insurance plan. There are hard feelings on both sides of the bargaining table. Commissioners felt they made a generous offer on July 18 by cutting insurance costs but then giving the savings back to employees in the form of pay raises. The unions are unhappy with the way the county adopted their insurance plan on July 18 with little advance notice to county employees. They also feel commissioners retaliated by removing all the pay raises when they adopted a substitute insurance plan in August.

LIUNA 630’s next step, assuming the union fails to reach accord with the county, is arbitration. An arbitration hearing officer would be hired and his or her decision would be binding. IAFF 4069’s next step if negotiations fail is mediation before a hearing officer, which is non-binding.