Butler County social worker strike starts Monday

With Butler County Children Services social workers set to strike Monday, the county said plans it has put in place will ensure the agency continues to run and to protect the 455 children it currently serves.

A last ditch effort to avert a social worker strike failed Sunday after management and the union workers haggled over a new contract with a federal mediator for about three hours.

“I think that as much as possible we’ve covered every detail and every contingency,” Butler County Commission President T. C. Rogers said. “We have a crisis team just in case something out of the ordinary comes up.”

The strike seemed imminent last week after the county made its final offer after six-and-a-half hours of negotiating Wednesday. The union representatives didn’t give an answer, instead they took to the streets toting signs that read “Children Before Politics” and “We Stand Up To Bullies.”

Social workers investigate claims of abuse, remove children from dangerous situations and provide families ongoing support and programs with the goal of reunification.

Union President Becky Palmer said she has asked the 90 workers who voted to go on strike to walk the picket line starting Monday. Roughly 175 employees work in the children services office.

“We believe that the entire negotiation process demonstrated a blatant lack of good faith bargaining on behalf of the employer and commissioners. There have been comments made by the employer that they were hoping to avoid a strike. It appears to the union that these comments were disingenuous,” she said. “The union believes that the commissioners attempt to force a strike in this manner creates a tremendous amount of liability regarding the children this agency is charged to protect.”

During a news conference Sunday, County Administrator Charlie Young said most children would be shifting to a new caseworker on Monday because of the strike.

The county held a job fair last week and 300 people showed up to fill 20 permanent and 40 temporary positions. Sixteen permanent positions have been filled and seven of those new employees will begin work Monday. The county has yet to fill any of the temporary positions.

There are 26 administrators with the proper credentials to perform social work duties who are also ready to step in to fill the void.

Young said they are also reaching out to dozens of social service agencies and non-profits to contract with and to help fill in the gaps.

“Frankly, we’ve been talking with anyone who is involved with children, who cares about the welfare of children. We’ve asked them to be a part of making sure we make it through what we’re now facing with this strike,” Young said Sunday.

Palmer said the striking workers cleared off their desks for replacements in anticipation of a strike. An online petition with 1,115 signatures as of Sunday afternoon was circulated in support of giving the social workers a pay hike above and beyond what the county has offered. The petition will be delivered to commissioners Monday.

The divide over wages and other issues sent the union and management to a state fact finder earlier this year.

The union members wanted a 3.5 percent pay increase in each year of the three-year contract, and they wanted step increases — that were frozen in 2012 — reinstated.

Young said automatic wage increases built into contracts have “nearly bankrupted” the county before and officials don’t plan on turning back to that pay model.

Instead, the county offered what it has other unions, a lump sum $500 in the first year and a $550 payment in the second year with a re-opener in the third year to negotiate the new pay-for-performance policy. The county has offered a similar package to 10 other unions, who have all accepted it.

The fact-finder recommended the steps come back and a 1.5 percent pay increase retroactive to July 2013, a 1.75 percent increase this July and a 2 percent raise next year, if a contract re-opener isn’t settled.

Young said county and union representatives essentially remained gridlock and neither side submitted a new offer during Sunday’s negotiations. A federal mediator only helped to “illuminate differences” between the two stances, he said.

“Unfortunately, the gap between what we can offer and what the union was looking for proved too large to overcome today,” Young said.

Assistant Human Resources Director Jim Davis, who is the main negotiator for the county, calculated the fact-finder’s recommendation would cost the county almost $1.2 million extra, and the county plan would amount to $213,000.

The average social worker earns $42,000 and the fact finder found Butler County social workers are under paid compared to peer counties.

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter, who has been very involved with Children Services, said the county has recently rolled out its pay-for-performance program and a new salary comparison is underway. She said there have been discussions about studying union pay as well. Union worker pay was not included in the first Clemans Nelson study.

“Union, non-union whatever, our intention is that our employees are paid fairly, and that we live within our budget,” she said.

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