No deal: Butler County Children Services' workers begin strike

Workers picket county offices, deliver petitions

HAMILTON, Ohio - Striking Butler County Children Services workers began to picket in front of the city county building just before noon Monday.

They went upstairs and delivered a petition with 1,231 signatures urging the county to come back to the negotiating table.

The county has offered $550 lump sum payments but no wage increase.

"We are asking for a wage increase. We believe we deserve one. We believe that will help keep people here," said  union president Becky Palmer. "We believe that will help attract new employees.

"We're willing to work the lump sums a little at least on one year, but we need to have a wage increase."

The county has been working fast to make sure that  children's services oprations aren't interrupted.

Supervisors with caseworker experience have taken on those duties, and the county is reaching out to other organizations to help fill the need.

Workers went on strike after a federally mediated talk between their representatives and county commissioners Sunday ended without a deal.

Union members wanted a 3.5 percent pay increase in each year of the three-year contract, and they wanted step increases -- that were frozen in 2012 -- reinstated.

The county offered what it has given other unions - a lump sum $500/$550 payment with a re-opener in the third year to negotiate the new pay-for-performance policy.

The average social worker earns $42,000 and a state fact finder found Butler County social workers are under paid compared to peer counties.

Last week the county started hiring workers to fill 20 permanent and 40 temporary positions. A Social Services Job Fair attracted more than 300 applicants. At last report, 16 workers have been hired to fill permanent positions. They were scheduled to start Monday.

County commissioner Charles Young acknowledged there may be problems at first, but they'll do their best to adjust and make sure it works.

"This is likely going to introduce someone new into the equation. That may be good, it may be not so good, but we're going to do everything in our power to make it turn out good," he said.

Young called the situation unfortunate but financially necessary.

"Unfortunately the gap between what we can offer in compensation as the county and what the union was looking for just proved too large to overcome," he added.

The commissioner said earlier in the week that there's a "limit to what the county can offer, especially in light of agreements already completed with the county’s 10 other bargaining units.”

Young said county and union representatives essentially remained gridlock and neither side submitted a new offer during Sunday’s negotiations. A federal mediator only helped to “illuminate differences” between the two stances, he said.

"The county must move to performance pay," he said. "The old model of compensation that the union has continued to seek, with annual step increases and annual percentage increases, nearly bankrupted the county."

Palmer said the negotiation process was flawed from the start.

“We believe that the entire negotiation process demonstrated a blatant lack of good faith bargaining on behalf of the employer and commissioners. There have been comments made by the employer that they were hoping to avoid a strike. It appears to the union that these comments were disingenuous,” she said.

Palmer said she has asked the 90 workers who voted to go on strike to walk the picket line starting Monday.

Roughly 175 employees work in the children services office.

"We think it's appalling that they can't treat us all as a team -- that we're supposed to be that. They preach that we are,” Palmer said.

At about 2:15 p.m. Sunday, union employees said their access to county property where they worked would be revoked at 5 p.m. Many told WCPO they were clearing their desks in anticipation of a strike.

Some of those workers were seen praying outside of the room where negotiations started at about 11:30 a.m.

"I just posted a message for some co-workers to come and gather and we can pray for the agency, for the negotiations, for the union and for the children and families of Butler County," social worker Kelly Sowder told WCPO.

Speaking on behalf of the union, Palmer said, "The commissioners' attempt to force a strike in this manner creates a tremendous amount of liability regarding the children this agency is charged to protect."

Butler County Children Services serves 455.

Social workers investigate claims of abuse, remove children from dangerous situations and provide families ongoing support and programs with the goal of reunification.

"I can tell you probably every single worker out there has cried," Palmer said. "They're devastated by this. They do not want to leave these children."

Some have voiced concerns over Children Services bringing new adults into the lives of children who've worked for years with specific caseworkers.

"I have kids that I've worked with for two or three years that I have relationships with -- and when I initially met them it took a while to build that relationship

and build that trust," Sowder said.

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