Clark County enforces contract that union rejected

Negotiations with IT Guild at impasse after 15 months

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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In a rare move, the Board of Clark County Commissioners voted 2-1 Tuesday to enforce a bargaining agreement that had been overwhelmingly rejected by guild members.

Francine Reis, Clark County's director of human resources, asked commissioners to approve the agreement following 15 months of negotiations with the Information Technology Guild, which has approximately 40 members.

Reis said Tuesday the county and the guild, after six meetings with a state mediator, were at an impasse.

The sticking point, said guild president Marian Croteau, who read a prepared statement to commissioners, was a "significant expansion" of managers' rights, particularly when it comes to hiring temporary and project employees.

Under the 2008-10 contract, which expired 18 months ago but had remained in effect, the county could hire outside employees "provided this does not result in the layoff of Guild employees or a reduction in the number of employees or positions within the Guild." That provision has been stricken from the new contract, which takes effect today.

Croteau, a senior programmer analyst who has worked for the county since 1990, told commissioners that Guild members are in constant fear of being handed a pink slip.

"Morale is at an all-time low," Croteau said.

Chairman Marc Boldt and Commissioner Tom Mielke, both Republicans, voted to enforce the contract, which was the county's "last, best and final offer."

Clark County Administrator Bill Barron said Tuesday's vote marked the first time in his 14 years with the county that commissioners enforced a contract that had been rejected by employees.

Commissioner Steve Stuart, a Democrat, objected to approving the contract, saying "there's no other guild we've pushed this hard."

The county has 15 bargaining units.

"We say we value our employees … I am disturbed by the path we are taking with this one guild," Stuart said. As with other county employees, the IT Guild members had agreed to, among other concessions to the county's shrinking budget, temporarily give up cost-of-living increases and pay 7 percent of their health care premiums.

Expanding managers' rights went too far, Stuart said.

Stuart supported letting negotiations continue, which Croteau said Guild members were willing to do.

Deputy Administrator Glenn Olson said after Tuesday's meeting that the county does not plan to lay off IT employees.

The county's general fund budget has been cut by $62 million since 2007-08 and 270 positions have been eliminated. Those cuts included two from IT -- one

union position and one managerial position, Olson said.

The county does want the ability to do in IT what it has been doing in other departments, which is to lose positions through attrition, Olson said.

"The problem isn't the employees, it isn't their training or that they don't step up," Olson said.

The problem, he said, is the pace at which technology changes. He said the county's not afraid to develop its own systems or buy software off the shelf, but the county also wants more freedom to hire temporary employees.

"It all depends on what makes the most sense economically," Olson said.

Under the old contract, the county could hire temporary employees to assist during an unusually high workload, but the temps could not work longer than six months or more than 1,040 hours, whichever comes first. The new contract doesn't put a cap on their time.

Also under the old contract, project employees could be hired for specific assignments, no longer than 18 months. The new cap is two years.

Reis said the county contracts with two temporary employment agencies. Temporary employees do not receive any benefits from the county and are paid according to the county's entry-level pay scale. Project employees are hired to fulfill a specific need, such as when the county has grant funding to complete a project.

Guild members' salaries range with job. For example, a technical support specialist 1 earns a minimum of $21.27 an hour ($44,244 a year) to a maximum of $27.17 an hour ($56,508 a year), according to a salary table included in the contract. Principal network, systems and database administrators, the top earners in the guild, earn a minimum of $39.16 an hour ($81,456 a year) and a maximum of $49.96 ($103,920 a year).

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.