Year-End Interest Arbitration Update…Sort Of

It’s become a tradition at the end of every calendar year for us to wrap up the year in interest arbitration by giving a rundown of all the recent arbitration awards from the last half of the year.  Usually, we have a number of different awards from jurisdictions of varying sizes to give the full range of opinions from around the state.  A slight problem this year is that ever since our last update, there has been a total of one interest arbitration award published on the BMS website!  So instead of a summary of all the cases, we’ll give you a summary of that one award, involving Douglas County’s Deputies and LELS.

A total of nine issues were decided by Arbitrator Abelsen at the hearing, including the implementation of a Board-approved pay adjustment, wages, duration, sick leave bank, insurance and vacation upon termination.

The first issue decided by the arbitrator had to do with the County Board’s resolution to increase the deputies’ grade from Grade 9 to Grade 10 – something one would think the Union would be appreciative of.  However, the union argued that the county erred in the implementation of its own resolution, and failed to calculate the increases correctly for employees in the deputy classification.  In defense of its position, the union provided no witnesses, and relied on the Human Resources Director to explain the intent of the resolution.  Needless to say, the union was not successful in arguing that the employer had erred in implementing its own policy.

For wages, the union proposed increases of 2% in 2020, 2.5% plus steps in 2021, and 2.75% in 2022.  The employer countered with a new wage grid in 2020 with a 2% general wage increase, 1.5% plus steps in 2021, and provided no proposal for 2022, as it sought only a two year contract.  In arguing for its position, the employer emphasized the uncertain financial times we live in as well as expected drops in revenue streams for government subdivisions.  Working against the employer were its pre-COVID settlements “in the 2% range” with other bargaining units.  In finding for the union, the arbitrator stated “to favor an employer’s concerns over an employee’s concerns seems unfair; particularly when other internal employee groups have settled for what this group is requesting.”  The arbitrator awarded the employer’s position of 2% plus a new wage grid in 2020, and a 2.5% increase in 2021 plus steps.

For 2022, working against the employer was the fact that it settled for three-year agreements with three of its groups before Covid hit.  Arbitrator Abelsen went in-depth with his discussion of the merits of a two-year versus a three-year contract in the current social and financial landscape.  While he found that a two-year contract would not favor one party over the other, it would have been unfair to “single out one relatively small unit in anticipation of what may happen.”  As a result, he found that a three-year contract seemed “most reasonable.”  He then awarded the Union’s 2.75% wage increase for 2022.

Regarding the rest of the issues, the arbitrator found that the union provided no compelling evidence to change the parties’ current arrangement on sick leave cash out or accrued vacation forfeiture.  The parties agreed on a contribution for health insurance post-hearing, and the Union’s request for a reopener (citing the uncertain future of health insurance premiums) was granted.

This is our first post-covid published interest arbitration award of the year.  As expected, the uncertain future played a big role in both the parties’ arguments as well as the arbitrator’s decision.  In the past months, many employers have worked to either slow negotiations, or reduce the duration of contracts in effort to get a better perspective on the environment until after the pandemic (when that ever happens).  As this award shows, it is still important for employers to maintain consistency with their employee groups when it comes to negotiations.  If you, or your organization, need assistance with negotiating a fair and consistent contract with your employee groups, or arguing your position in interest arbitration, contact the Wiley Law Office, for negotiations experience that works.