Carver County prevails in Interest Arbitration with Law Enforcement Personnel

On January 7, 2013, Arbitrator Christine Ver Ploeg submitted an arbitration award involving Teamsters Local 320, representing forty-two law enforcement personnel in the Carver County Sheriff’s Office.  The bargaining unit consisted of 29 detention deputies, 12 911 Dispatchers, and one Terminal Agency Coordinator.  Bargaining issues included wages for calendar years 2012 and 2013, range movement, severance, uniform allowance, shift differential, and whether a market adjustment was warranted for certain bargaining unit employees.
Arbitrator Ver Ploeg prefaced her award by noting two principles underlying interest arbitration: (1) that an arbitrator is to determine what the parties would have negotiated had they reached agreement at the bargaining table or to settle a strike, and (2) that arbitrators should avoid arbitration awards that significantly alter a bargaining unit’s internal or external standing “unless there are compelling reasons to do so.”  These prefatory remarks seem to indicate a bias towards the status quo, which was later borne out in the award.
Moreover, in response to the union’s argument that the employer had the ability to pay the union’s proposed increases, the arbitrator cited Minn. Stat. 179A.16, subd. 7, which requires interest arbitrators to consider the “obligations of public employers to efficiently manage and conduct their operations within the legal limitations surrounding the financing of these operations.”  This has become a common, and successful, counter to union arguments when an employer clearly has the funds to make the proposed wage and compensation increases.  With respect to financial health, the union cited healthy reserves and bond ratings.  The county countered that local government aid from the state will likely be curtailed, the county had implemented labor cost reducing measures, and that its reserves were declining.  Though the arbitrator noted that Carver County’s financial health was stronger than many Minnesota counties, she noted that the county “must be financially responsible and its expenditures must be sustainable.”
The arbitrator cited that the county’s position was consistent with internal pattern increases, but did not provide significant analysis on that point.  Externally, the arbitrator compared Carver County with Anoka, Dakota, Scott, Washington, and Wright counties. Though she noted that Carver County was smaller than these comparators, she stated that Carver County’s wages were competitive, and it did not have “difficulty attracting and retaining employees in this bargaining unit.”
On the wage issue, the union sought 4% increases in 2012 and 2013, an additional 7% market increase for Dispatchers at the top of their wage scale, and a 4.5% step increase for employees.  The county proposed a .5% increase to the wage scale and a 1% wage increase effective July 2, 2012, and a 1.25% increase to the wage scale and a 1.75% wage increase effective July 1, 2013, with no market adjustment for dispatchers.  Arbitrator Ver Ploeg adopted Carver County’s position, noting that the award was consistent with internal comparisons — 91% of Carver County employees (all but the Teamsters’ units) had agreed to the same pattern.  The award also preserved the county’s practice of treating all bargaining units and non-union employees the same.  The arbitrator determined that the dispatchers did not require a market adjustment based on external comparisons.
The arbitrator included an extended discussion about the parties’ disparate recollections about the future of step increases, and determined that the union’s position that county’s suspended step increases were to resume was not supported by the evidence.  Moreover, the arbitrator did not change: the county’s severance schedule, the unit members’ uniform allowances, or the shift differential, finding that all of the current contract provisions were fair based on internal and external comparisons.
This Carver County Arbitration award in an excellent result for the county, and the arguments therein should be quite helpful for employer-side interest arbitrations in 2013.