Union Pay Raises Irk Tomassetti – Some increases exceed 3 percent limit; minimum wage set at $10 per hour

Source: Altoona Mirror

HOLLIDAYSBURG — A new contract for a group of unionized Blair County employees allocates some raises beyond the typical 3 percent in 2019 and sets the county’s minimum wage at $10 per hour.

Blair County commissioners voted 2-to-1 Tuesday to approve the three-year contract with the United Mine Workers of America representing 226 employees in 21 county and court-related offices and departments.

The contract approval occurred during the weekly commissioners meeting, shortly after commissioners voted 2-to-1 to adopt a $55.31 million budget for 2019.

As anticipated, the budget keeps real estate taxes at 3.925 mills, meaning a tax bill of $392.50 for someone with a property valued at $100,000.

Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb and Ted Beam Jr. voted for the UMWA contact and the budget while Commissioner Terry Tomassetti voted against them.

At the beginning of the 2019 budget-planning process, Tomassetti suggested considering raises to counter turnover and failed to get a supportive second vote. Erb and Beam told Tomassetti that they preferred to wait for the results of a salary and job classification study and its recommendations.

Tomassetti later narrowed his request to county attorneys, with support from President Judge Elizabeth Doyle, District Attorney Richard Consiglio and Chief Public Defender Russ Montgomery.

But Erb and Beam still declined to consider the idea, saying they didn’t want to “pick and choose” any specific department or group of employees for raises beyond the typical 3 percent.

“That is indeed what we have here today,” Tomassetti said Tues­day when casting his vote against the contract.

In addition to 3 percent raises for 2019, the union contract includes $1,500 increases for corporals and sergeants and $1,000 raises for deputies in the sheriff’s department.

For 77 union-represented employees making less than $10 an hour, the new contract translates into a 28 percent increase for employees earning $7.25 an hour, the state’s minimum wage.

“For some of those people, that’s huge,” said Human Resources Director Kather­ine Swigart, who was in­volved in the negotiations.

The new contract also increases longevity paid to veteran 911 Center staff members by adding $1.50 an hour for lead communicators and 40 cents an hour more for telecommunicators when working as trainers.

Erb and Beam rejected Tomassetti’s criticism of their support for the contract.

“This was a negotiated contract,” Beam said. “The county and the union negotiated fairly, and I accepted it.”

In exchange for the outlined wage changes, Erb said the union consented to other items in the contract, including ones that could help reduce costs in the future. For instance, the union contract sets 2.5 percent annual raises for 2020 and 2021. So if the salary study generates recommendations prompting commissioners to consider higher raises in those years, the union employees get the raises outlined in their contract.

Otherwise, it would take both sides to agree to a wage reopener, Erb said.

Tomassetti said the commissioners were advised in late August of the proposed additional increases being considered at the bargaining table. He said he chose not to reveal the proposal after checking with legal counsel who said that doing so could generate a union grievance.

Tomassetti also pointed to a “lack of equity” within the contract which also refines rules for overtime, vacation procedures and sick leave.

The proposed contract, Swigart said, is reflective of the departments with representatives at the bargaining table: juvenile probation, sheriff and the 911 Center.

Some unidentified county employees, prior to a recent union meeting, posted notices in the courthouse urging UMWA members to vote no and send union leaders back to negotiate a better version. But the union members OK’d the proposed contract.

The Mirror tried Tuesday to reach the county UMWA union leader and did not receive a return phone call.

Sheriff James Ott said he had heard that the union was making an effort on better pay through negotiations. A couple of weeks ago, Ott told commissioners that his department, just like other county departments, regularly loses staff because of low pay.

“I’m appreciative, and I’m sure the staff is appreciative that the county is supporting this,”Ott said of the union contract. “But even with the amounts in the contract, the pay is still less than it should be and it’s not enough to keep people from leaving.”

Ott said he has hired 18 deputies this year to fill vacant positions and is now looking for a 19th deputy.

The deputies were making $13.74 per hour this year, Ott said, so with the additional $1,000 increment and the 3 percent raise, their 2019 pay calculates to $14.65 an hour. Deputies typically work a 35-hour work week.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.