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Deputies, county to enter mediation

WORTHINGTON -- Since Jan. 1, the deputies of the Nobles County Sheriff's Office have been working under an expired contract, having been unable to come to an agreement with the county.

Because law enforcement personnel are considered essential, they work without a contract -- using the expired contract's guidelines and pay scale -- until a new one can be hammered out. According to union steward and Nobles County Investigator Jay Clarke, the deputies once worked 18 months without a contract.

Essential employees are also not allowed to strike, Clarke added.

There are nine deputies, each of whom is a member of Law Enforcement Labor Service Local 163. When a final negotiating session in mid-December did not end with the two sides in accord, the union petitioned for mediation, which is scheduled for Feb. 24.

Nobles County Administrator Mel Ruppert said he thinks the two sides are very close.

"It is just a matter of a sit- down to make sure both parties understand each other, and that each of our interests are expressed in the contract," he stated.

Since the December meeting, Ruppert said, the union's business agent has been out of the office on a medical leave, so the negotiations were on hold until the agent could be present.

"So we can all get together for a final resolution," Ruppert explained.

Ruppert was not willing to speak about the points of discord in the last draft of the contract.

"We settled on wages right away, which is usually a sticky point," Clarke stated.

The agreement is for a 1½ percent raise in both January and July for 2009 and 2010, and a 3 percent raise in January 2011, which, according to Clarke, is what all county employees will receive.

According to Clarke, the two sides ran into problems when the two sides could not agree on annual leave language. Currently, the deputies accrue sick hours, vacation hours and get several floating holidays a year.

"We discussed annual leave, but it was voted down by the deputies," Clarke stated.

After three different negotiation sessions, the two sides were unable to come to an agreement. Clarke said he asked Ruppert to simply add the new wage information to the old contract language, which he felt would work for both sides.

But when he got the new contract back from Ruppert, there had been changes made in the language that would restrict the days the deputies could use their floating holidays and would remove holiday pay for some holiday hours.

"There was no loss of holiday pay," Ruppert insisted. "That is not how the county understands it."

Currently, if a deputy starts working on a holiday and stays on duty until the morning hours, he or she is paid holiday pay for the entire shift. The new language, Clarke said, would stop the holiday pay at midnight.

"The commissioners don't seem to understand we aren't like other county employees," Clarke explained. "We work 24/7 and 365 days a year."

What Clarke finds frustrating, he said, is that the variations in floating holidays were not even discussed during negotiation, so when he got the new version of the contract back, he was surprised to see the changes. Ruppert, however, said he believed all of those subjects had been discussed during negotiation.

"Our guys said if the new wage language was stuck on the back of the old contract, they would sign it," Clarke stated. "That is basically what (Ruppert) was told to do."

Clarke said when the two sides originally came together, each one had their "wish list."

"We scratched two-thirds of our list, and they scratched two things," he reported. "They didn't want to meet us halfway."

And during each negotiation meeting, Clarke and his co-steward Nobles County Deputy T.J. Gertsema had to take time off work to attend the negotiations, while the commissioners earned a wage for attending the meetings.

"We're donating out time, and they get paid to be there," he commented.

Clarke admitted he didn't think the two points the county added in to the contract were that important to the county, but said he plans to attend the mediation optimistically.

"I have every intention of trying to resolve the issues in good faith," he stated. "We need to work together for a viable contract."