The state’s Board of Personnel Appeals found on Thursday that Yellowstone County had committed an unfair labor practice in a pay dispute with its clerks union.
The ruling included an admonition for the county to return to the bargaining table as the two sides work out a new labor contract.
The county and the union have been negotiating a new deal since the spring; roughly 130 Yellowstone County Courthouse employees have worked since July 1 without a contract. Courthouse employees, which includes sheriff’s department clerks, are represented by the Montana Federation of Public Employees.
“We are pleased with the hearing officer’s decision and believe it is in the best interest of our bargaining unit members and Yellowstone County,” MFPE President Amanda Curtis said in a statement. “We will continue to bargain in good faith as we have done from the beginning of negotiations. The county should accept this order as is and bargain in good faith with us, as the hearing officer has directed.”
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The county is looking at its next step but said it’s long sought to pay its clerks more.
“While the county disagrees with the investigator’s finding of an (unfair labor practice) and is considering its options on whether to have the decision reconsidered, the outcome is exactly what the county desired for its employees almost a year ago,” said Jeana Lervick, chief in-house deputy county attorney.
The dispute originated with a clerk shortage in the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s office last fall. After failing to attract qualified candidates to fill the vacant positions, the county sought to advertise the openings with a higher starting salary. The higher salary was still within the union contract pay range listed for the position.
Recognizing that these newly hired clerks would make more than some recently hired clerks working at a lower rate, the sheriff’s office also sought to increase the salaries of the recently hired clerks until the county and the union started contract negotiations that coming spring.
The sheriff’s office needs approval from the union to adjust employee salaries. The union turned down the offer and instead proposed beginning contract negotiations early.
“The county asked the union for permission to pay its handful of clerks more, to bring them in line with new recruits and the union said no,” Lervick said. “So for the investigator to recognize the right outcome to be exactly what the county was proposing — and the union was preventing — was a win for our employees and we are thrilled.”