About 2,400 unionized Baltimore County public employees are set to return to work Monday without contracts, following disagreements about workers' contributions to their health care benefits.
The stalemate has left workers uncertain about a range of important issues, including vacation and sick leave. Other contract issues not addressed by law include allowances for uniforms and shoes, and paid leave to attend union training and other events.
"This is an unprecedented situation for us," said AFSCME Council 67 staff representative Ryan Genovese. "Working without a contract will create a lot of uncertainty."
Two unions — the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees and AFSCME Local 921 — have not reached labor deals with County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's administration, and their previous agreements expired Saturday.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4 also did not reach an agreement with the county, but most of the terms of its contract will continue because they are protected under a binding-arbitration case.
Both labor leaders and county officials said that employees would still have certain protections without a contract. County law addresses issues such as grievance procedures and pay schedules, they said.
BCFPE President John Ripley said he expects the county to follow regular departmental policies on issues such as vacation and sick time.
Last week, county officials told Ripley and AFSCME Local 921 President Norman Anderson to report to their regular jobs Monday. Under the groups' contracts, the presidents received paid leave from the county to attend to union business.
Genovese said that in the past, the county has allowed the union to work under existing contracts when agreements weren't made by July 1. AFSCME — whose members include laborers in the Department of Public Works and other agencies — is questioning the county's move, because the union's agreement includes a provision that automatically renews if a deal hasn't been made by the deadline, he said. The union filed a grievance on the issue Friday.
"It's a radical change in practice, and if they move forward with it, it would be a radical change in labor relations in Baltimore County," Genovese said. "We've always been able to work things out. … We want to maintain a good relationship with the county executive, and we think we need to work this out."
Ripley, whose group represents about 1,600 employees, including corrections officers and 911 dispatchers, said the county workforce is the smallest it's been in decades.
"Our No. 1 goal is to keep those employees focused on their jobs," Ripley said, adding that the group plans to file unfair labor practice complaints. "We are committed to reaching an agreement with the county."
Kamenetz's chief of staff, Don Mohler, said that in negotiations, the administration is "trying to protect employees and protect taxpayers."
"Most of our employees and many of our labor leaders understand that," he said. "There are one or two labor leaders who don't."
Mohler also pointed to an October letter to AFSCME saying the county would terminate its contract if no agreement were made by July.
The county has labor deals through 2014 with the firefighters, sheriffs and nurses unions.
Genovese and Anderson said their group, which represents about 800 employees, had a tentative agreement with the county on the bulk of their contract. But that was linked to successful health care negotiations by the county's Health Care Review Committee, which is made up of labor representatives and others, they said.
In May, that committee, chaired by Ripley, rejected a county proposal to increase the amount of money workers contribute to their health care starting in 2015. Anderson voted in favor of the plan.
Ripley and FOP Lodge No. 4 President Cole Weston both said the sticking point was that the county hadn't provided claims data requested by the committee.
"We are committed to reaching an agreement in contract and health care negotiations, but we're not going to do it blindfolded," Ripley said.
Last week, the county proposed increasing the amount of money workers contribute to their health care starting in 2013 — earlier than the previous proposal — but the committee has not met since getting that offer.
In a letter to Ripley dated last Monday, human resources director George Gay said the county reconsidered its position since the May vote because of local, national and international economic problems.
"During that period of time, the continued economic news has not been encouraging, whether it's the local news on Sparrows Point or the rate of job growth in Maryland, the national news on the so-called fiscal cliff, or the international news on the European debt issue, and the credit downgrade of financial institutions," he wrote.
Kamenetz's administration was at odds with some unions earlier this year when he introduced a bill to cut overtime wages from AFSCME workers' retirement benefits. Labor leaders argued that the measure sidestepped contract negotiations, and the County Council tabled the legislation.
Anderson said that the issue was later resolved in labor talks, but that the deal was contingent upon health care negotiations.
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