Unions pushing Palm Beach County for pay raises
Mar 09, 2013 (Sun Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Do more with less for the same amount of money. Sound familiar
Palm Beach County government employees, who haven't received across-the-board-pay-raises since 2009 due to the struggling economy, say they have had enough.
Union leaders are pushing for multiyear pay increases for blue-collar county government workers. But so far county officials haven't been willing to commit taxpayer money to those kinds of the salary boosts, blaming a still-uncertain economic outlook.
As a result, a flood of union-prompted emails and phone calls from frustrated workers calling for action are coming to Palm Beach County commissioners.
And now a union-sponsored billboard along I-95 in West Palm Beach calls for county commissioners to: "Do the right thing!"
The offer from the county so far includes a 58 cents-an-hour pay increase, translating to about a $1,200 salary boost for employees, starting in October.
That's a "slap in the face" for workers who haven't seen a pay raise in four years, said Richard Poulette, president of Communications Workers of America Local 3181. The union represents about 1,400 county employees in a wide range of positions including electricians, maintenance workers, parks employees and animal-control workers.
The union wants an immediate $1,200 bonus for employees, followed by a 60 cents-an-hour raise starting in October and at least another 60 cents-an-hour raise the following year.
"It's about time that the county commissioners stand up and make a decision," Poulette said. "Step up and do the right thing and treat these people with some respect."
The county's offer of a salary bump instead of a multiyear boost "is just a manipulation technique," said Dwight Mattingly, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1577, which represents about 380 Palm Tran employees.
The union negotiations are particularly significant, because the pay raises set in the contracts for union workers could end up being applied to the rest of the county departments' workforce -- except for firefighters who are in the midst of negotiating their own deal.
County officials say raising salaries is a priority, but how much remains the sticking point.
"Modest" pay raises are the goal "if the financial picture allows," said Palm Beach County Mayor Steven Abrams.
Palm Beach County Commission-controlled departments -- which include parks, roads, Fire Rescue and more -- have about 5,800 employees.
The median salary for county employees, excluding Fire Rescue, is about $44,000 a year, according to the county. That's less than half of the median base wage for Fire Rescue, which is about $91,000.
The county eliminated about 600 positions in recent years as the Great Recession led to a drop in property tax revenue, which left the County Commission cutting costs and raising property tax rates for three years in a row to avoid budget shortfalls.
With the economy improving, the county this year was able to avoid raising property tax rates. Now union leaders say the time has come to reward workers whose salaries remain stagnant.
"We are being asked to do a whole lot more [work] with a lot fewer people," Poulette said. "Morale is down as low as it can get right now ... It needs to be done. It's way past due."
The communications workers contract expired at the end of September, while the contract with Palm Tran union employees expired in 2009.
The county and the bus drivers union remain at odds over salaries and pension benefits. Drivers have also complained about route scheduling problems amid an increase in ridership, which can leave them too little time to eat or even go to the bathroom.
Palm Tran drivers' pay ranges from $13 an hour to $22 an hour. Past agreements called for the a new bus driver's salary to gradually increase to the top level over five years, but those increases were put on hold amid the economic downturn, Mattingly said.
Now that the economy has improved, the pay increases should resume, Mattingly said.
In Broward County, county commissioners responded to the improving economy by increasing pay following several years of budget cutbacks and employee furloughs.
The Broward County Commission in January approved a 3 percent pay increase over two years for blue-collar workers, with plans to spread raises through the ranks of county employees.
Palm Beach County officials say that the difficulty of agreeing to a multiyear pay raise is that the County Commission sets its budget year-to-year, guided by property tax revenue projections.
After several years of declines, property tax revenues improved this year with expectations -- but no guarantees -- for that to continue.
"Financially right now, the board can't commit beyond the coming fiscal year," said Wayne Condry, county human resources director, who leads the negotiations with the unions. "I don' think that [county commissioners] feel we are out of the woods yet."
No timetable has been set on trying to finalize either the communications workers' or the transit workers' contracts.
While the talks continue, the old contract terms remain in place. If the talks hit an impasse, a mediator would be brought in to try to reach an agreement.
Whatever happens, the County Commission gets the final say.
Instead of giving raises in 2012, county commissioners -- who are each paid $92,097 a year -- allowed county employees to take Dec. 31 as an additional paid holiday.
"When the economy was more certain, then you could make some assumptions," Abrams said in reference to unions seeking multiyear raises. "There is a lot of uncertainty in the economy right now."
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