County agrees to pay hike for local custody officers

County approves contract with guild after arbitrator issues a split decision

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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The Clark County Custody Officers' Guild won a 3 percent cost-of-living increase and a smaller contribution to health care premiums in a recent interest arbitration award.

Arbitrator Kathryn Whalen ruled against the guild, the third-largest among the county's 15 bargaining units, on four other issues, however.

County commissioners approved a new contract Tuesday with the guild, which has about 140 members.

The guild's most recent collective bargaining agreement had expired Dec. 31, 2010.

After the county and the guild reached an impasse in negotiations, 13 issues were approved by the Washington Public Employment Relations Commission to be submitted to Whalen. The county and the guild worked out some issues and left Whalen to decide the remaining six. A two-day hearing was in May.

The new contract will go back to January 1, 2011, and expire on Dec. 31, so the county and the guild will soon start negotiating a new contract, said Francine Reis, the county's director of human resources.

In August, a different arbitrator settled a long-running dispute between the county and the Deputy Sheriff's Guild, the fourth-largest bargaining unit.

In that case, guild members were awarded a 2 percent wage increase and told to pay 5 percent of medical premiums.

The Custody Officers' Guild represents 122 custody officers and 18 sergeants who work at the Clark County Jail and work center and transport inmates to and from court appearances.

The hourly pay rate for guild members ranges, after the 3 percent increase, from $21.55 to $28.91.

A recent Clark County study found that wages are generally comparable (plus or minus 8 percent) to those offered by similarly sized counties and the private sector but county employees pay less for benefits and enjoy more time off.

Reis said Tuesday that state law specifies an interest arbitrator consider wages and benefits in comparable counties.

For comparable counties, Whalen used Clackamas and Washington counties in Oregon and Kitsap, Thurston and Spokane counties in Washington.

As for wages, the county argued for no increase in 2012, noting other county employee groups had agreed to two-year wage freezes and calling the guild's request for a 3 percent increase "excessive … especially in an era of strict financial scrutiny," according to Whalen's Sept. 3 decision.

Whalen concluded, however, that Clark County base pay for custody officers lags other counties by 3.9 percent and officers had deferred a negotiated 3.5 percent wage increase from 2010 to 2011.

As to the county's argument it couldn't afford the 3 percent increase, Whalen said the county's general fund budget for 2011-12 is $279.3 million.

The estimated cost of the pay increase is $265,978, she wrote.

"Based upon all of the evidence and utilizing a cautious economic approach, I am convinced the county has the ability to pay the 3 percent COLA increase and it is justified upon external comparables," she wrote.

Health premiums

Since the guild's last agreement expired in 2010, the members were in a "status quo" period during negotiations, Reis said. The terms of the previous contract remained in effect, and as health care costs increased the members had to pay increasingly higher contributions. Before Whalen's ruling, members were paying 15 percent of their medical premiums. Most other county employees pay 7 percent of premiums for themselves, partners and dependents.

The county argued the custody officers should pay 7 percent as well, but Whelan said they should pay 5 percent, the same as what members of the Deputy Sheriff's Guild pay. She noted that "the difference in cost, by the county's own calculations, is modest -- $48,062."

According to a 2011 study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, U.S. workers on average pay 28 percent of their health insurance premiums.

Whelan ruled against the guild on four issues including longevity pay, in which employees would receive additional pay increases after 15 and 20 years of service. Whelan also denied proposals to shorten the waiting period for long-term disability insurance from 180 days to 90 days, increase the county's formula for cashing out accrued sick leave and increase the maximum amount of compensatory time off that can be banked from 80 hours to 96 hours.

Jeff Young, president of the Custody Officer's Guild, was unavailable to comment on this story.

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