ELLSWORTH, Maine — The state’s highest court has ruled that Hancock County, which went to court in an attempt to avoid paying two new employees a combined total of less than $100 in overtime, will have to pay the money.
In the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s Dec. 21 decision, the justices vacated a lower Superior Court ruling that sided with the county. The Law Court remanded the case to Hancock County Superior Court with instructions for the lower court to issue an order to the county to pay the overtime.
Philip Roy, the county’s chief financial officer, said Wednesday that the county would pay the overtime to the employees when the Superior Court issues the order. The decision will not be appealed, county officials said.
The county had argued in Superior Court that a jail cook and a dispatcher were not entitled to overtime pay as laid out in the county’s contract with the Teamsters union because each employee had worked for the county for less than six months.
But the Law Court sided with the union, saying that the county nonetheless allowed the employees to file union grievances. Each employee’s immediate supervisor denied the request for overtime pay, but when each employee appealed to their respective department heads, as allowed by the established union contract, the de-partment heads relented and agreed to give the employees higher wages for the extra hours they had worked.
In the Law Court decision, Justice Donald Alexander wrote that the county was obligated to accept the decision of the grievance process that it voluntarily had entered into. It could not appeal a process that it had allowed to go forward because it does not like the outcome of that process, he wrote.
“Having so participated, the county can neither object now to its original participation nor appeal the determinations favorable to the employees by the county department heads,” Alexander wrote.
The union’s attorney, Adrienne Hansen of Portland, said Dec. 30 that the court made the right decision in requiring the county to pay the employees the money. She said the department heads had agreed to pay the employees the money because the county has a history of paying overtime to its new union employees.
“They’ve always considered [probationary union employees] to be entitled to the same contract rights,” Hansen said. “You can’t go back on it because you don’t like the decision your department heads have made. By starting the process, you are compelled to finish the process.”
Hancock County Commissioner Steve Joy said Wednesday that he understands the court’s decision, but he still contends that the employees in question are not union employees. Neither the Superior Court nor Law Court decision addressed that question, he said.
“That never has been answered in this,” Joy said. “We lost this because we did not follow our policy.”
Joy said these situations of overtime pay claims going to court are rare in Hancock County because, 90 percent of the time, the supervisors and department heads deny the overtime claims. But with this court decision, he said, a precedent has been set that could affect the county’s personnel costs.
“This might be a $100 issue today, but now it becomes an issue with every new employee going forward,” Joy said.
To help keep a lid on such costs, commissioners plan to clearly address the issue of whether probationary employees are entitled to overtime pay under the Teamsters contract, according to Joy. He said they also would like to be more involved in the early stages of union grievances.
The amount of money at stake in this case may have been relatively small, Joy said, but commissioners wanted to address the principle of it in order to help save county taxpayers money over the long run.
“This is a money issue for which the commissioners ultimately are responsible,” Joy said.
Hansen said it is likely the county spent “significantly more” than $100 on legal fees in contesting the overtime claim. She added that though small by county standards, the money at issue was significant to the employees.
“These people don’t make a lot of money,” she said. “[The Law Court decision] is the right result. It was a matter of principle for the union, and we’re happy with the way it came out.”