Lehigh Valley

Northampton County former union workers lose bid for retroactive raise

EASTON, Pa. - Sixty-four Northampton County employees lost a request for retroactive raises on a 4-4 vote by county council Thursday night.

The workers in probation, domestic relations, court reporting and pretrial services gave up their union representation in January, but the 2% raise given to other non-union staff at the beginning of the year only went into effect for them on July 28.

After the meeting, County Executive Lamont McClure said the raises started that date for the former union workers because that is when pay scales were set.

Arky Colon, a leader of the former AFSCME union local, said when the bargaining unit stopped representing the workers, they should have been treated like other non-union workers and received the raise immediately.

"We understand that we lost the ability to negotiate," he said, but it was not the duty of the court-appointed employees to have a plan once they were out of the union. That responsibility was on the county, he said. Colon said he approached the administration in 2018 to advise it that the workers might leave the union.

"What I'm receiving from the 2% is 64 cents per hour more than I'm currently making, and that won't buy me a cup of coffee," Chris Davis said.

Davis works in adult probation and will start his 29th year of employment with the county next week.

Voting to make the 2% increase retroactive were John Cusick, who proposed the idea; Margaret Ferraro, Robert Werner and Ronald Heckman. Voting against providing back pay were Kevin Lott, William McGee, Lori Vargo Heffner and Tara Zrinski. Matthew Dietz was absent.

"These employees are being punished for leaving the union," Ferraro said before the vote.

Werner said, "We can afford to do this," referring to the $69,982 cost of paying raises retroactively. A former union member said the lump sums paid would have been about $500 to $800. County union workers received 4.5% raises under new contracts this year.

Heckman, president of council, said the bid for retroactive pay was an unusual request that "we may never see again." He noted that it is not council's job to negotiate with employees, but added that the July 28 start date for raises appeared to be arbitrary.

Lott said it would "undermine the administration" to interfere in pay scales after they were approved. He said the workers had "no plan" for what would happen after union decertification.

"The administration provided a fair deal," McGee said, before voting against retroactive pay.

Vargo Heffner said workers do not always get what they consider to be fair treatment: "Sometimes, you don't get raises for years and years."

Zrinski paused a couple seconds before voting "no" as Cusick's amendment to the proposed county pay scales failed on the split vote.

The pay scale itself passed 5-3, with Cusick, Werner and Ferraro dissenting.

In other business, McClure said the county should cut funding to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission if more resources do not go to Northampton. The commission, which sets spending policy for transportation projects in Lehigh and Northampton counties, is not doing enough for the county, he said.

"We have an opportunity to use our leverage based on what we contribute to the planning commission," he said. The commission has said recently that state cuts mean less transportation work will be done across the Lehigh Valley.

Later, Werner said that when he recently called LVPC Executive Director Becky Bradley, "I never got a response." Werner said companies that are expanding in the area should have to help pay for road work.

In other business, McClure told council that the county's Gracedale nursing home provides 44% of Medicaid-paid beds in the county and takes in many people who are very ill. That is not going to change, he said, as Gracedale continues to serve many patients with severe problems.

"We take care of the sickest folks and we don't turn anybody away," he said, and as state hospitals close, "We will get those folks too."

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