by Scott Neuffer

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January 11, 2013
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Arbitrator says no to extended longevity pay for school district employees

An independent arbitrator has decided that longevity pay is not a given for classified employees of the Douglas County School District.

On Dec. 20, San Francisco arbitrator William E. Riker ruled in favor of the district office that long-standing step and longevity salary increases are subject to negotiation and therefore do not automatically extend beyond the term of an employment contract.

"First and foremost is recognition by the parties that at the expiration of the term of a collective bargaining agreement, unless specifically exempted, all of the articles of a contract are on the table," Riker wrote in his decision. "Frankly, recognizing the reality of the district's funding sources, as well as the financial circumstance the school district may be facing in 2013, the association's position on step increases is not the more reasonable."

The decision was the result of an impasse in negotiations between the district and the Douglas County Support Staff Organization. According to arbitration proceedings, union membership rejected a tentative agreement last summer because of one sentence in the contract regarding step increases.

That sentence stated that step increases would last only for the life of the two-year contract, which expires in June 2013, meaning affected employees would receive checks retroactively for the preceding fiscal year as well as increased salaries this year.

The union protested to the word "only," which later was deleted from the draft language, but also to the sentence itself that limited step increases to the contract period.

"This position was supported at the hearing through the testimony of Ms. Haskins (DCSSO Past President Debbie Haskins)," wrote the arbitrator, "when she responded to questions while under cross-examination that: 'We have just always been given our five-year step increase, our one, two, three, four, five, 10, 15, and 20 step raises, so the concern or the knowledge that, really, the district's intent was to take away our longevity raise, I didn't even have a concept of that because it has never been that way, and never had they threatened to take it away.'"

The district's response, according to the proceedings, was that step increases do not exist outside contractual negotiations:

"On July 30, 2012, the district's superintendent (Lisa Noonan) wrote to Ms. Haskins that: 'Step increases are a form of compensation. There is an additional cost to the district's budget each year if step increases are provided. Compensation is a required area of bargaining. I am not aware of anything in NRS or in the current contract that makes step increases mandatory or automatic.'"

According to DCSD Human Resources Director Rich Alexander, the step increases in question would affect only 74 of roughly 400 classified employees in the district and would cost about $56,000. That includes a 2-2.5 percent pay raise each year in the first five years of employment, and a 5 percent raise in the 10th, 15th and 20th year of employment.

School board members were set to ratify the contract, including the arbitrator's decision, at their Jan. 8 meeting. At that time, Alexander said he was under the impression that the union had signed off on everything except the step increase language.

But DCSSO President Nancy Hamlett told trustees that her membership had not voted on the contract because the arbitrator's decision arrived during holiday break.

"You're putting the cart before the horse," she said.

She said it was the union's understanding that the contract was a package deal.

"We could not have approved just part of it," she said.

Board President Sharla Hales called the confusion "a good faith misunderstanding."

In the end, board members decided to delay the item rather than approve it unilaterally.

"My concern is possibly what precedent we're setting for the future," said new board member Neil Freitas. "We don't want to be perceived as pushing the hand of the membership."

Trustees agreed to continue the item to their Jan. 25 meeting, giving union membership about two weeks to reject or approve the contract.

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The Record Courier Updated Jan 11, 2013 06:36PM Published Jan 11, 2013 06:34PM Copyright 2013 The Record Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.