Luzerne County’s 75 probation officers and domestic relations support officers will receive raises three years in a row and keep their controversial length-of-service bonus and clothing allowance, according to a newly awarded binding arbitration decision.
Local attorney Cynthia R. Vullo, who represented the county on the three-member arbitration panel, has criticized the benefits, saying she supported eliminating the clothing allowance and reducing the “longevity” bonus, said a dissent statement she attached to the award.
“While the introduction to this award mentions the difficult economic situation of the county, this award did not go far enough to alleviate the financial burden to the county resulting from having to continue to pay for costly benefits,” Vullo wrote.
Most of these unionized court branch officers are paid $64,900 annually, county records show. The award grants 2 percent raises this year retroactive to Jan. 1 in addition to increases of 2.5 percent in 2017 and 2 percent in 2018.
Vullo said evidence was presented showing the compensation for these employees is “well in excess” of the pay received by their counterparts in other similarly-sized, third-class counties in the state.
“On top of that, after seven years of service, these employees receive longevity payments pursuant to a costly longevity formula that increases every year because it is based on a percentages and years of service,” Vullo wrote.
The bonus is calculated by multiplying 0.25 percent (0.0025), the years of service and salary. For example, a 20-year employee making $64,900 would receive a $3,245 bonus.
Employees hired in the future will now receive flat bonuses ranging from $300 after eight years of service to $1,500 after 25 years. However, the only longevity concession for current officers was a cap limiting the annual bonuses to $5,700. The county spends more than $200,000 annually on longevity bonuses for this union — the Court Appointed Professional Employees Association, the administration said.
While county officials want to get rid of longevity bonuses altogether, they have pushed for conversion to flat amounts in arbitration, arguing the formula payouts were too high. A binding arbitration award with the county Court-Appointed Support Staff in April swapped the formula with flat amounts for all union workers, new and old.
The union’s $500 annual clothing allowance should have been eliminated because the officers don’t wear a uniform, Vullo wrote.
“Although some of them appear in court, there are other union employees in this county who appear in court and who do not receive a clothing allowance,” she wrote, noting there is “nothing unique” about the officers’ courtroom attire.
Union head Charles Majikes said Tuesday probation officers have a “very dangerous job” and become targets as they monitor offenders. They usually visit homes and businesses unannounced checking up on clients who often resent the examination. Encounters, including those involving other family members, can “escalate quickly,” he said. The officers are undergoing training to carry guns.
“We are subjected to situations that require split-second decisions. It’s not a good feeling,” Majikes said. “On a regular basis, we are threatened.”
Probation officers must handle growing caseloads and allow offenders to remain in the community, which helps the county’s struggle with prison overcrowding and the rising cost of incarceration, Majikes said.
Majikes said the union “bent over backwards” to negotiate with the prior administration before turning to binding arbitration, which is the recourse for unions that can’t strike and reach an impasse.
Vullo’s dissent stressed her arguments were based mainly on the county’s financial condition and were “not in any way a reflection of the valuable work and effort made by these employees.”
The award points to an increased workload caused by staff cutbacks, but Vullo’s dissent said evidence also showed prior layoffs were justified due to past overstaffing. At 35 hours, the weekly work week for the union officers is less than that in most other similarly-sized counties, Vullo said.
“Most other bargaining units in this county receive fewer benefits than this group, further justifying the reduction in longevity pay and elimination of clothing allowance for this unit,” Vullo wrote.
The union also took some hits in the new award. The workers must now pay 10 percent of current costs toward health insurance, instead of flat, unchanging amounts. Under current rates, the employees will pay $76 every two weeks for family insurance coverage compared to $48.
Language also was added emphasizing the court’s “complete autonomy” over personnel, regardless of seniority or other past practices.
The new contract also reduces the starting salary from $47,382 to $36,000. Officers hired in the future initially would be covered by special step increases instead of across-the-board raises and would be paid $42,793 after seven years, or less than the starting salary in the old contract.
Two other attorneys served on the arbitration panel — Sean T. Welby for the union and Mary Theresa Metzler as the neutral representative.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.