After working without a contract since 2011, Spokane County deputies rejected an offer for a 7.5 percent raise, county officials say – sending their stalled contract negotiations to arbitration.
Turns out, that would have been a good deal.
An arbitrator last month ruled that deputies deserve only a raise of 2.5 percent.
Now that determination, which will cost Spokane County roughly $645,000 this year, could be derailed by a lawsuit questioning the arbitrator’s authority on defining medical benefits.
The decision, more than three years in the making, ended with a 2.5 percent pay increase for the roughly 200 employees of the sheriff’s office represented by the Spokane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association. The labor union is challenging the decision in Spokane County Superior Court, after leaving on the table a total pay increase of 7.5 percent during negotiations that stalled last year, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said.
Members of the labor union have been serving the county without a contract since the end of 2011.
Jane Wilkinson, an Oregon-based arbitrator appointed by the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission, ruled last month that deputies must enroll in the medical insurance plan that covers all other county employees. The deputies union objected that their job exposes them to greater physical risk than other county employees and the increased medical costs outpace the salary increase agreed to by the county.
Mielke called the plan the deputies currently have a “Rolls Royce” option. The HMO requires no deductible, co-pays roughly half that of other employees and offers lower out-of-pocket maximum costs.
The deputies association says the decision to retroactively place its employees on a health plan with higher premiums violates the constitutional and legal authority of the county. Wilkinson ruled that deputies would be placed on the new health plan Dec. 1 of last year, despite the fact that the award was not finalized until February.
Walter Loucks, president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said the lawsuit filed last week in Spokane County Superior Court to nullify parts or all of the arbitrator’s decision is about the legal rights of his union’s members.
“The county made a request of the arbitrator to violate our rights and the law,” he said. Wilkinson granted the 2.5 percent pay increase after comparing Spokane County deputies’ compensation to similarly-sized sheriff’s offices throughout the state. Factoring in longevity pay and salary increases for obtaining an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree, Wilkinson found that the pay increase requested by the county would leave local deputies with salaries favorable to their colleagues in Kitsap, Snohomish, Clark, Pierce and Yakima counties.
Deputies had been asking for a pay increase that equaled roughly 7.7 percent over three years, according to Wilkinson’s calculations.
Both Loucks and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said they were worried about deputies leaving the office for better-paying jobs at the Spokane Police Department. Six deputies left for jobs with Spokane police in 2014, and Loucks said those ranks would likely swell this year, Knezovich said.
“It really does make it hard for me to keep morale up, and to recruit people,” Knezovich said Thursday of the wage disparity with other departments.
Still, Knezovich said he would prefer if the county and labor union would solve their issues without litigation.
“It would be nice if both sides could sit down and resolve these things,” Knezovich said.
The sheriff’s association has hired Seattle labor lawyer Jim Cline to represent them in the lawsuit against the county to prevent the arbitration award from being enforced. Cline pointed to a similar case involving the Kitsap County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild, currently before the Washington Supreme Court, that will likely determine whether Wilkinson’s decision on deputy pay will stand.
“The state wage law says you can’t pull money out of an employee’s pay check without a written agreement,” Cline said. The arbitrator’s decision orders that deputies start paying into the new medical plan, which means an increased monthly deduction, on Dec. 1, before the award had been issued and before deputies could decide whether to opt out of the medical plan.
Mielke said the lawsuit was a legal tactic deputies are using to remain on the more lucrative health plan in hopes that another round of arbitration takes place. The deputies are requesting a new round of talks, which have been delayed for three years, in part, because the county has filed unfair labor practices complaints against deputies. In the meantime, deputies would remain on the previous health plan.
“Is it in their best interest to delay this decision? Yes,” Mielke said, referring to the deputy labor union. “Is it in the best interest of the citizens of the county? I don’t think so.”
The county offered to waive the paycheck deductions for deputies from December through this month. Cline said that was an attempt to make an unlawful arbitration award conform to the law.
“I think that they’re trying to do an end-run around an unlawful award,” Cline said. The deputies claim their constitutional right to keep benefits already earned and their statutory right not to have money deducted from their paychecks without a written agreement, were violated by the county.
Bob Wrigley, the county’s chief financial officer, said the arbitrator’s award would cost the county $575,000 in additional salary payments and clothing allowances and $71,000 in additional payroll taxes. Those additional costs were not covered in the 2015 budget, Wrigley said.
“We didn’t set anything aside,” he said. “How we’re going to pay for that, it hasn’t been decided yet.”
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