A small group of employees from the Mid-Columbia Council of Governments spent the noon hour on Wednesday standing in a picket line along 12th Street.
The workers gathered in front of the Hood River office while their counterparts in The Dalles assembled near the entrance of MCCOG headquarters on Kelly Avenue.
“The number one message that we want to convey is that with a fair contract we’ll have the security of knowing we’re going to be here for another day and our clients will also have that security,” said Eric Profitt, a member of the collective bargaining unit for the Service Employees International Union Local 503.
Last spring, a majority of MCCOG workers in the employment and transportation services voted to unionize because of “inconsistent and unfair treatment by management.” For example, MCCOG recently paid a $58,000 settlement to one adult foster care provider who had her business illegally shut down by a former administrator. When that case began developing almost four years ago, 17 out of 18 MCCOG employees also filed a formal complaint over the “hostile working environment” created by that same manager, who is no longer employed with MCCOG.
Profitt said the union workers believe that last spring’s layoffs of 10 employees was done in direct retaliation for the vote to unionize. He said because of the many problems that have occurred between labor and management during the past few years, the employees want some protection. He said one of their demands is that a provision be inserted into their contract which prohibits them from being fired without proof of “just cause.” Currently, Profitt said the personnel handbook states that the employees serve “at will” and that allows them to be dismissed at any time.
“We are looking for some standard and fair language that is the pillar of any contract — if someone is going to be terminated we’d like it done justly,” he said.
John Arens, MCCOG director, refuted Profitt’s assertion about the layoffs, saying the staffing reduction took place solely because of a $935,607 deficit in operating capital. He said that move followed the loss of three staffers last year in addition to across-the-board service and program cuts. Arens said the agency does not want the “just cause” language because it already follows a “due process” for all disciplinary actions. He said these procedures include an investigation into the incident, discussion with the staffer, arrangements for further training if necessary, and an appeal process both before and after dismissal.
“A true ‘employment at will’ would mean that someone could make a decision to have someone terminated and not even have to give a reason,” said Arens.
In addition to the dispute over “just cause,” MCCOG is objecting to a union demand that layoffs be implemented solely on seniority instead of factoring in productivity and other qualifications. The agency opposes a union move to have all workers pay dues whether they are members or not, and disagrees with binding arbitration, which Arens said typically goes against management about 50 percent of the time.
“Essentially, if I terminate an employee for what I consider a legitimate reason and the executive board agrees that is a legitimate reason, the arbitrator could come back and overturn it and then we’re right back to square one,” said Arens. “It takes all of the final decision of management out of the hands of management.”
He said in these tough economic times MCCOG cannot afford to give the union workers the 3 percent pay raise they are demanding. He said a 2 percent cost of living adjustment was already enacted in July and each worker qualifies for an annual increase of between 2.5-5 percent on their employment anniversary.
Profitt said the current recession is creating a greater caseload of dislocated workers, at-risk youth, needy seniors and individuals with disabilities, among others. He said MCCOG could have retained some of the employees it let go by cutting its administrative overhead, which is running at 10-15 percent. Arens said that MCCOG is funded by about 70 grant streams for which it must provide separate accounting to various federal, state and local entities. He said that money is channelled through four separate departments and into five different counties. He said the majority of this funding is allocated for specific programs and that the average overhead of between 10-11 percent is well within the allowable limits.