Butler County Children Services strike: One year later

A lot has happened at Butler County Children Services since case workers took to a picket line a year ago today.

“It’s hard to believe in some respect that it’s a year ago,” County Administrator Charlie Young said. “And then it’s hard to really believe it’s only a year ago, given how much things have changed.”

All dressed in royal blue T-shirts carrying signs with messages like “We stand up to bullies” and “Honk for change in Butler County,” about 40 workers began picketing outside Children Services offices on Fair Avenue bright and early that Monday morning. Three weeks later, clad in “mourning black,” the case workers returned to work without a contract. Seven months after that a new deal was sealed.

One year later there is new management at the agency; the reorganization announced in January 2014 has been implemented; a projected $4 million budget deficit was erased; and merit raises were doled out to workers for the first time ever.

The negotiations went sour last summer when the wage divide was about a $1 million difference between what the workers wanted and the county said it could afford. The lump-sum $500/$550 payment the county offered would have cost $213,000 extra. A SERB fact-finder recommended 1.5/1.75/2 percent pay bump, plus cost of living steps, which had an additional price tag of $1.3 million.

Union Chief Becky Palmer ordered a strike vote after Human Resources Director Jim Davis cancelled two negotiating sessions. The message Davis sent to the union’s attorney tells the tenor of the talks back then.

“It is my opinion that the nature of our last session and the public comments about negotiations that have been made recently have created an environment that is not conducive to successfully reaching an agreement,” Davis wrote. “I intend to reschedule a session mid-August in what I hope is a more positive climate for reaching a settlement. At that time, I will respond to your last counter proposal.”

While the county and the union have settled a host of grievances filed before, during and after the strike, Palmer said she and Davis are at least civil to one another now, some employees say the fractured labor/management relationship in some respects still lingers.

Agency employee Bob Barker said the hard fought performance pay issue is a perfect example. In the new contract, in exchange for the workers acquiescence to merit pay, the county agreed to a 2 percent increase to the minimum and maximum salaries on their pay ranges. Last month supervisors awarded 1 percent to 3 percent pay raises based on performance.

“The performance evaluation was very much what we had anticipated and justified the union’s protracted fight against the proposal. When asked for explanations and questioned about the ratings no answers were forthcoming and no clarification was given as to what changes needed to occur in the future,” Barker said.

“Additional scrutiny of the process may well demonstrate that the perceived anti-union animosity, by management, continues to play a role in how matters are being handled here. If so, this may need to be addressed further with the State’s Labor Relations Board.”

Since the strike, former Children Services Executive Director Jerome Kearns was moved out of his role and back to heading the jobs and public assistance arm of the Job and Family Services agency. Ray Pater, executive director of the Child Support Enforcement Agency, is now in charge of the entire social service operation.

Agency Director Bill Morrison said he believes the supervisors and administrators did a good job of evaluating the employees and everyone got at least a one percent raise.

“I believe they came up with a true listing of how we value the efforts of our employees,” he said. “You could take that list from top to bottom, you could not pick out who is very involved with the union, who is not very involved with the union, who struck, who didn’t strike. It’s a straight up observation of how we value our employees performance.”

Union Chief Becky Palmer begged to differ with Morrison’s remarks, saying the process was skewed, unfair and subjective rather than objective.

“Supervisors were told not to score higher than an average rating and the scores ranged from 47 to 77. After 21 years experience I scored almost last in the rating, and staff with four weeks experience scored higher,” she said. “I had personally never received such a poor evaluation. They say it has nothing to do with leading a strike.”

Morrison said the spectrum of merit raises was “almost a perfect bell curve” and the allegation he gave a directive that no one should be given a higher than average score is false. As for Palmer’s performance evaluation?

“Her score was a reflection of how we valued her performance in her job as a facilitator,” he said.

Morrison said the evaluation process was arduous and the administrators and supervisors met after the evaluations were completed to make sure no one supervisor was doling out high marks to everybody. He said in the end they achieved consensus on the ratings and raises.

“It really went a lot better than I was expecting it would and we did get a lot of consensus out of it. I think that’s why you don’t have a huge outcry from the staff about it,” he said. “I think when they look around I think most of them believe we kind of got it right.”

The union also claims the reorganization is not going well. Palmer said the caseload distribution is lopsided with some workers carrying as many as 20 cases, both investigation and ongoing. She said others may be closing their cases too quickly because they are having to make return visits to some families.

“Our concern is that, although not being tracked, cases are coming back in again, unresolved after we were out there a month or two before. If the risk is being assessed the same and the families are receiving appropriate supports, why is the risk not being reduced,” Palmer said.

“Our workers have the best intentions, but they recognize that they cannot do two jobs effectively. Both take a special skill. Those who have not changed the way they are doing their job, are crying for help and working higher levels of overtime in order to meet their mandates. If they voice their opinions out loud, they are blamed for not closing their cases and being complainers.”

Again, Morrison disputes some of the claims. He said they do track repeat clients and there is no evidence to suggest some workers are closing cases prematurely. As for uneven caseloads, he said the new model calls for families to stay with their initial worker for six to nine months rather than being handed off to a new person in 30 to 45 days.

“It depends largely on that worker’s practice and ability to close cases quickly,” he said. “But all the intervention workers have the potential for having both intake and ongoing cases.”

It seems as if what happened after week one of the strike last year is continuing to some extent. The county issued a cease and desist order because they said union workers were telling untruths about what was going on inside the building in their absence.

Morrison at the time denied any hiccups had gone on at the agency after 55 workers walked off the job.

“To the people who are working there, to have their own go out and tell untruths about their ability to protect the children of Butler County is incredibly hurtful,” Morrison said.

But Palmer accused the county and Children Services management of glazing over real problems that were going on in the absence of the striking workers.

“They are not being honest … Do they think that they can do the job of this many people?” she told the Journal News on Aug. 22, the fifth day of the strike. “It’s very serious, and I just feel like they should be scared about this whole situation; there is so much liability here. We are feeling it, I don’t understand why they’re not feeling it.”

But Palmer says there is still hope better relationships can be forged.

“The healing and collaboration is at its beginning stages, and the union hopes that the labor management training will be of some support. But it has to be much more than words and there has to be action behind it,” Palmer said. “Having empathy and support for workers versus shunning those who speak up will go a long way as we move forward.”

Hurt feelings and fractured relationships are not the only things that have had an impact in the years’ time. The agency both announced the expected $2 million deficit would double for last year and that they had solved the problem. Kearns took a lot of blame for the budget shortfall, but that was not the sole reason he was moved out of children services the county also wanted him focusing his attention on JFS and wanted Pater’s proven track record expanded.

Pater was put in because he has had huge success — CSEA has been the top performing agency in the state 12 years running — running his own agency. He also now has Tracey Howard to help him manage the business of the agency. Pater is projecting the agency will end up with $6.3 million in cash flow this year compared to $1.5 million last year. He said one of the first things they did was to dive into the countless contracts the agency has, to make sure they are getting what they need and are paying for.

“I was brought in and Tracey Howard, we have a lot of expertise managing large organizations and people,” he said. “My first task or the main task right now is to merge quality assurance with the fiscal responsibility. Our primary focus obviously is the safety of children and the well being of families, but you can do that best by making sure you can do that effectively and efficiently and fiscally sound.”

The county administrator acknowledged this year has not been easy for anyone, from the commissioners on down, but he has faith they can jump the current hurdles and move forward.

“Clearly a new dawn has come in the relationship and we’re at the beginning of a path that I think will lead us all in a common direction …,” Young said. “It’s been a very difficult year for everyone involved as we tried to meet the mission and grapple with other difficulties.”

Commission President Don Dixon said he thinks the agency has made “landmark improvements” over the past year, like saving the taxpayers almost $1 million by outsourcing the family visitation services.

He said the strike, the first in county history, was unavoidable. When the legislature approved unionizing counties in the 1980s, he said it had its good points. However, step and cost of living raises got out of control, and it wasn’t fair to the people footing the bill for government workers, who have no such perks in the private sector.

“At the end of the day it was not pleasant, it was something none of us wanted to go through, certainly don’t want to go through again,” he said. “But I think time will tell that it’s proven to be a great benefit to the agency in terms of delivering their services.”

About the Author