County must pay $705,960 retroactively to probation office employees

March 20, 2014
Exterior of Washington County Correctional Facility

A decadelong scheduling dispute between Washington County Court and employees of the adult and juvenile probation offices ended Thursday when the county commissioners acknowledged that $705,960 in back pay, plus interest, is owed to the workers.

“We’ve appealed it through the Commonwealth Court, we’ve been through the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board and we’ve exhausted all our appeals, so we’re paying what was awarded,” said Scott Fergus, Washington County director of administration, after the commissioners unanimously voted to pay the sum, which has been the subject of an unfair labor practice.

“It predates me, and I’ve been here 10 years,” Fergus said of the dispute, which began when the county and the probation department workers were unable to reach a contract after their pact expired Dec. 31, 2003.

The employees, who are members of the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 84 and are not permitted to strike, took the matter to a labor arbitration panel. Included in this contract was language that their shift was to last 7 1/2 hours.

The arbitrator issued a decision in 2004 that the probation officers should have an eight-hour workday.

Then-President Judge David L. Gilmore notified the county commissioners that he refused to implement the eight-hour shift, and in May 2004, the county petitioned the court to vacate the arbitrator’s award. Gilmore died later that year, and in 2007, Senior Judge Paul H. Millin of Warren County granted the county’s petition. The union appealed Millin’s ruling to Commonwealth Court.

The county and union were again at loggerheads over a new contract, and the workers went to arbitration over a three-year contract that was to expire at the end of 2009.

The second arbitrator did not address the length-of-workday issue, but granted a one-time bonus of $1,200 and an additional 1 percent raise to union members who were employed as of May 3, 2004, the date the county first filed its petition with the court.

In 2008, the probation officers won a round in Commonwealth Court, which reversed Millin’s decision and ruled that the probation officers should be paid for an eight-hour workday. The county appealed to the state Supreme Court, which decided in 2010 not to take the case.

A few days later, President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca changed the length of the probation officers’ workday from 7 1/2 hours to eight hours, but the union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board because the county refused to grant retroactive pay for the extra half-hour. The labor board upheld the workers’ position, and the county took the matter to Commonwealth Court.

The appellate court, in a split decision, decided over the summer that the county is responsible to pay workers for the eight-hour workday.

“We did stop the interest and back pay from running because we’ve been paying for the extra half hour since 2010,” Fergus said. “So this would be from 2004 to 2010.”

The payments are due to people who worked for the adult or juvenile probation departments during that period of time.

“We’ve had to track down former employees. We actually have one estate for an employee who has died,” Fergus said.

The commissioners’ action came at a time when the probation officers have again gone to arbitration for a new contract.

“We have not received the arbitrator’s award, nor do we expect this subject to be mentioned,” county Human Resources Director Charles Nicholls said Thursday afternoon.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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