BANGOR, Maine — Unionized employees of Penobscot County Jail issued a statement Thursday announcing that they have rejected what they called a “substandard contract offer” from the county and now plan to file for arbitration with the Maine Labor Relations Board.
The workers, members of the corrections line unit of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 1828, said they have exhausted every effort, including use of a state mediator, to reach a fair and equitable contract agreement with the county.
In their news release, union members said that both sides agreed to use a three-person fact-finding panel which issued an eight-page report after two full days of hearings and that subsequent negotiations around the fact-finding panel’s report failed to yield a fair offer from management.
The latest contract offer was rejected unanimously by union members, they said.
On Thursday, Tom Davis, chairman of the Penobscot County commissioners, said that the county’s contract offer called for a 2 percent pay increase over two years but that this might no longer be possible.
In contrast, state employees, he noted, haven’t had raises in four years.
The offer of a pay increase may be rescinded because the Department of Corrections has mandated that county jails reduce their operating budgets by 1 percent after several years of flat funding despite increases in such areas as fuel and prisoner transportation.
“It’s almost an impossible feat and the only way to do that is lay people off and we’ve tried to avoid that,” he said. “There is no more juice to squeeze.
“We’ve been fair but frugal. We’ve always been reasonable and I like to say we’ve earned a reputation for being fair. We’re trying to keep people working but we can’t give large pay raises,” he said.
Davis said Thursday he was somewhat taken aback by the union’s decision to issue a news release about the contract impasse.
“The commissioners have never negotiated — and never will negotiate — a contract in the press,” he said. “We don’t do that.”
Union leaders said that issues in dispute include proposed changes in health insurance coverage and the retroactive date of proposed pay increases for workers, who have not seen a negotiated pay increase since before their prior three-year contract expired in 2010.
They said, however, that the biggest sticking point between union and management is the “ongoing and growing use of part-time workers as a means of wrongfully denying current full-time workers access to sufficient work hours.”
Davis said that was not the case. He said all full-time employees are scheduled to work at least 42 hours a week. He also said that the county continued to provide step increases, though it wasn’t obligated to after the prior contract expired.
“They’re kicking because they’re not getting overtime,” Davis said. He said that the idea of using part-time workers was to reduce staffing costs while providing training to employees who one day might be hired full time.
Davis further said that while full-time employees do work some overtime hours, the concern is that too many hours — such as the 50- to 60-hour workweeks that once were the norm — pose safety problems.
Union leaders also alleged that part-time workers were not allowed to join the union despite the fact that they have signed documents indicating their desire to be part of the collective bargaining unit. A separate charge on this matter is being filed with the Maine Labor Relations Board.
Davis and Sheriff Glenn Ross said Thursday that existing contract language does not allow for that. Only full-time employees are eligible to join the union.
AFSCME Local 1828 represents 42 employees of the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor. Besides county corrections officers and clerical workers, membership includes cooks, transport officers and a public works officer.