Lehigh Valley

Lehigh Commissioners approve county social workers' union contract

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The Lehigh County Board of Commissioners Wednesday unanimously approved the collective bargaining agreement between Lehigh County and the social workers' union from January 2014 through the end of 2018.

The contract includes three percentage-based wage increases over the next year, a  $1,000 contract ratification bonuses for all rank and file workers, an additional $1.000 incentive for those opting to retire within the next 90 days, and increases in employee contributions towards their healthcare insurance, as per contract details.

According to Mallory Kennedy, attorney and business agent for the Pennsylvania Social Services Union Local 668, SEIU, workers will receive an initial seven percent wage increase when the contract is signed by Lehigh County Executive Tom Muller. another five percent hike in six months, and a final three percent raise on Jan.1, 2018. The attorney described the pay raise percentages as fair considering the county lost nine guaranteed jobs reduced from 149 to 140 and healthcare employee contributions also increased.

Both the union and county representatives expressed relief the contract dating back several years was finally resolved following a three-year lapse.

Union shop steward Frank Gerlach remarked bargaining between the county and union had become nonexistent and noted workers have not had a pay raise since the last contract expired on Dec, 31, 2013.

He said employees also lost three days sick leave per year and the pay increases are not retroactive to the start of the contract back in January 2014, however, only from ratification in the next ten days and forward.

"The process was not conducive to efficient negotiations," commented Gerlach, who explained, "The commissioners did not come to the bargaining table with the proper personnel or the authority to make decisions during negotiations."

Kennedy said the new contract will not entitle retirees to retroactive pay increases, however, anyone opting to retire in next three months will receive an extra $1,000 bonus which she said she believes the administration granted in lieu of retroactive pay raises.

Both union representatives and commissioners' Chair Brad Osborne whose committee sponsored the contract on behalf of the county would not specify an exact dollar amount saved by the county under the new contract.

However, Osborne noted  the decision not to offer back pay to workers did not provide for substantial savings and was not an objective of the negotiations.

"We inherited this unfinished contract," he pointed out and drew attention to the fact it was initially in the hand of county executive Tom Muller but had reached an impasse. He said the commissioners assumed the project without substantial background information and were forced to assume the negotiations from the beginning.

Osborne said he was confident Muller would endorse the long-awaited  agreement.

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