A Butler County foster mom is viewing the ongoing Children Services strike with no small measure of trepidation, but she doesn’t blame the workers for abandoning their posts.
About 40 social workers and other agency employees started picketing in front of the Butler County Children Services building at 300 N. Fair Ave. on Monday at 7:15 a.m. Butler County officials say they believe this is the first county government workers strike since the state began recognizing public employee unions in the 1980s.
Natasha, a foster mom who only wanted to be identified by her first name, said she will be marching with workers as much as possible to show her support. She has been caring for her 14-month-old daughter since a month after her birth. The fact that social workers she knows and trusts are not on the job is worrisome, she said.
“We’re kind of in limbo at this point,” Natasha said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, we feel uncertain, we feel unappreciated. Our workers are our connection to everything. We know nothing that’s going on with our cases, they have that information we don’t. If something were to happen with my daughter, nothing medical, that I need to talk to my case worker about, my case worker knows my case, knows me as a person.”
The threatened strike became a reality on Sunday after a three-hour negotiation session with a federal mediator failed to break the contract impasse between the union and the county.
Human Resources Director Gary Sheets told the Journal-News previously he can’t remember any other government worker strikes in Butler County, and he has lived here since before public employee unions were recognized.
“Not that I can recall,” he said. “I’ve been here since ‘97 and lived around here since ‘81, but there has only been public employee collective bargaining since the late 1980s.”
One of the negotiators for the union, Rachel Melampy, said there really was no negotiation over the weekend.
“It was apparent there was no intention to divert this strike,” Melampy said. “It was very frustrating; that doesn’t even begin to categorize how I feel.”
County Administrator Charlie Young, the county’s spokesman on the strike issue, said there were 80 staff and managers manning the office on Monday, about 20 to 25 helpers from outside agencies, and the seven new workers who were hired after the job fair last week are in training this week. He said he had no way of knowing whether any of the social workers on the job might have voted in favor of the strike. The strike vote was 90 to 14.
“We respect the right of the Children Services Independent Union to take the job action they have chosen to take,” Young said during a late Monday afternoon news conference. “We must focus on one issue and one issue only, and that is to continue to serve the needs of the children in this county.”
Young said there haven’t been glitches so far with agency operations.
“There were no reports of cancellations due to a lack of staff,” he said. “We were over 100 full-time equivalent employees on the job today to meet the needs of the county.
“Things are going very well. We’re essentially conducting business as usual,” Young said. “We’ve had a number of investigations that have been required, and we’re out dealing with them. The county today focused on the children of Butler County.””
Natasha said she feels like she will have to “train” any new worker she might need to contact while the strike is going on. But the foster mom said she doesn’t blame the social workers, the issue is purely political.
“The commissioners have abandoned us,” she said.
Young said politics is not at play.
“I’m not sure I know what they mean by that. In fact, I know I don’t know what they mean by that,” he said. “This is financial as far as I can tell.”
The agency is staring down a $2 million shortfall this year and that was part of the reason for the reorganization process the county started in February. The county is also trying to get the unions and other county offices to buy into the new pay for performance plan the commissioners’ employees are under. The union wanted the cost of living steps reinstated and a 3.5 percent pay hike each year of a new three-year contract. The county was offering the $500/$550 lump-sum bonus the 10 other unions have agreed to.
Young said the fact-finder’s recommendation to reinstate the 3.3 percent step increase and 1.5/1.75/2 percent pay increases would have cost the county about $1.3 million over the three years, whereas the county’s plan would be $213,000 extra.
Young and the commissioners have said on numerous occasions the former pay increase plan was bankrupting the county. By cutting out step increases for non-union employees under the commissioners control in 2008, the county saved $7.5 million, and it is expected the county will save $18.5 million over 10 years.
There were no altercations with non-striking workers on the first day of the strike because those people drove around the side of the building and entered through a back door. When the Journal-News attempted to go to that back door two sheriff’s deputies — who the social workers called “babysitters” — told reporters they were not going to be allowed access.
The striking workers’ paychecks and benefits stopped when they hit the picket line. Striking social worker Tim Thilberg said he’ll be selling plasma and finding whatever other work he can do while not picketing, to make ends meet.
“It’s a hard decision for everybody out here,” Thilberg said. “We are foregoing pay to be out here to make our point about what we want to see the county do, the position we’d like to see them take. If it continues on too long, we’ll be out here without benefits. It is scary, but the fact we’re out here striking is scary… This is going to be a new challenging experience for all of us.”
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