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Talks break down between county, workers association
by Jill Lufrano
Mar 21, 2012 | 813 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
RENO — Washoe County’s largest labor group, representing 65 percent of the county’s rank-and-file employees, and the county’s administration have hit a road block after eight months of formal and informal negotiations.

The Washoe County Employees Association (WCEA) has already agreed to a 4.5 percent wage cut — something that it conceded to the county early on in the talks. The employee association is declaring an impasse — something that it says hinges on the administration’s refusal to add language to the association’s one-year contract guaranteeing that the other county workers will get equal treatment this time around.

County Manager Katy Simon issued a statement saying the impasse instead is the result of the association’s refusal to give even more cuts to its base salary.

“We just received word that the WCEA wanted to declare impasse, and we have not had an opportunity to discuss it yet with the county commission,” Simon wrote. “Our employees have been, and continue to be, very committed to helping us to address the results of the lingering recession, for which we are very grateful. We asked the WCEA for an additional 1 (percent) reduction beyond what they are currently giving.”

For the current fiscal year, the Washoe Board of County Commissioners made $10 million in operating cuts, used $9.75 million in reserves and gave more than $4 million in offsets to what was asked of employees this fiscal year in order to solve the current budget shortfall without putting all the burden on employees to cut their wages and benefits, according to Simon.

“We remain committed to continued negotiation to see if there are mutually agreeable solutions. We would find it very tragic not to be able to reach agreement after so many months of good faith bargaining on both sides,” Simon said.

The association also remains optimistic about a resolution, however employees have already taken several hits over the past four years. They were first approached with a wage reduction of 3.4 percent but collectively agreed to raise it to 4.5 percent during initial negotiations with the caveat that other county associations also face similar reductions, said Dave Kelly, spokesman for the WCEA and a member of the negotiation team.

In 2011, county employees had already foregone cost-of-living increases for four years. At that time, the county salary ceiling was already 4.6 percent below the average of all Nevada public employees. Staffing levels were at the lowest in four years.

The largest county employee association would settle for a major salary cut, only if other county employees were treated equally.

“What we wanted was some protection that we were not the only group giving concessions,” Kelly said. However, the county negotiation teams were not flexible during talks. “We wanted some protection that we would be treated fairly and in line with the sheriff’s office and the other eight associations. It has felt that some years that we have given up a lot and other groups have not.”

The largest labor group in the county, WCEA is comprised of supervisor units and non-supervisors, office employees, line personnel, library workers, parks and recreation, health district employees and other similar office workers. In all, some 1,200 employees belong to the WCEA.

The average salary of a WCEA employee is $45,000 a year, Kelly said.

“Every time the county has a hole to fill, we’ve always worked with them,” Kelly said. “We feel it’s better for the community.

“We believe our role in the community is important,” Kelly said. “What our members do is important. To help with a budget problem is a responsibility, and it will help everybody overall. The WCEA always acts in the best interest of the community overall to come to an agreement to make this thing work.”

This year, the county decided to proceed in a different manner with negotiations, according to the WCEA. Instead of starting with preliminary negotiations between county administration and the WCEA, the county immediately hired a negotiating team from California to begin talks with the association, costing the county just under $270,000. County spokeswoman Nancy Leuenhagen said the county hired labor law firm Renne Sloan to negotiate with 11 employee groups, including the two fire associations. The contract with Sloan ended in November.

These negotiations broke down and the association was then forced to continue talks with Simon and Assistant County Manager John Berkich. though the ultimate authority was with the county commission. Now, after more than eight months of formal and information negotiations, the sides are at an impasse. Once again, an outside arbitrator must be employed to seal the deal.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Penny Rasmussen, president of WCEA, “because we were so close to meeting the county’s budgetary needs, and we do believe we made a reasonable request to be treated fairly and equally with all other county employees. I just can’t understand why they couldn’t want to make a deal that would go so far in solving the budget problems.”

It all comes down to wording, according to Kelly. Just as county administration and WCEA team members were at the table, hammering out language to ensure the association members would be treated equally and not take the brunt of cuts for the county, talks fell apart.

“We were getting very close,” Kelly said. “It’s a frustrating thing. We just want language that said they would meet us at our level … some guarantee that they would negotiate similar types of deals and wouldn’t hold us to that (if other associations weren’t given equal cuts). We couldn’t get to that language.”
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