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Rushford ends union battle

By Kirsten Zoellner

Fri, Mar 14th, 2014
Posted in Rushford Government

More than one year after the city council first made the decision to set the date for termination of Public Works employee Curt Courrier, the ongoing saga is over and Courrier is back to work for the city.

In and prior to December 2012, Rushford’s Public Works Department lobbied for Courrier’s 36-hour per week position to be transitioned to full-time, based on increasing workload within the department. Whether or not the staffing needs were there, or if the work could be done more cost effectively for the city, was an area of contention between Public Works and several on the council. Funds had been included in the 2013 budget to transition Courrier to full-time employment, but without the specific accountability of time or proof of need that was sought by those councilors, the council agreed to extend Courrier’s position only until March 31, 2013. February 25, a motion to terminate the position passed in a 3 to 2 vote.

By March 6, AFSCME (American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees) Local 1944 had filed two grievances with the city based on the decision, citing two applicable violations; the first in relation to seniority and the second to discipline and discharge. Facing possible litigation, and following a closed meeting with legal counsel, the city approved reinstating Courrier effective April 1 through December 31, 2013 at 36 hours per week, with no overtime and pro-rated benefits to be provided. When the approved period was up, the council stuck with their earlier approval nine-months earlier ending Courrier’s position.

Shortly after, AFSCME filed a new grievance, citing violation of several contract articles. Union representative Jim Dahling spoke before the council and cautioned the city on not yielding to their grievance, thereby taking the matter to mediation and possible litigation. At the January 27 meeting, City Attorney Terry Chiglo repeatedly asked the union to correct factual inaccuracies in the grievance or provide proof of said violations. No agreement could be reached and the city council denied the grievance, sending the issue to mediation.

Mediation sessions were held March 4, at city hall. Union representatives, Courrier, city councilors Mark Honsey and Roger Colbenson, administrator Steve Sarvi, and Chiglo were present along with a mediator from the Bureau of Mediation Services. A meeting with all parties was held prior to meetings of the respective parties in separate locations with the mediator. An alternative work schedule for Courrier was sought by the mediator and the union proposed reinstatement in a part-time position at 32 hours per week.

The city had intended to use seasonal, part-time labor for the workload previously assigned to Courrier. While the city was aware these positions have certain specifications of number of working days and other guidelines, they were unaware of what the mediator dubbed, “serial employment.” Essentially, this occurs when a seasonal employee is let go prior to the end of their set employment limits and replaced with another seasonal employee to continue the work. In those cases, arbitration consistently rules that the seasonal employees’ hours are to be combined. After employment limits are met by the combination, they are deemed to be public employees, granted all benefits as such. Based on the amount of work that is expected to be done, the strategy is not possible. In addition, the mediator cautioned the city that lay-off or reduction is only allowed to due decease of work or budget cuts and to consider if those specifications were accurate.

Weighing the results of the findings during mediation and arbitration, should the grievance move forward, the city found the union recommendation acceptable. Following further discussion, however, the city felt that the workload would continue past 2014. The decision was made to enter a counter-proposal not only reinstating Courrier, but raising his position to full-time employment. The union agreed and the grievance was dropped. Funding for the position is already in place within the 2014 budget.

The council formally approved the mediation agreement at the Monday, March 10 meeting. Uncharacteristically short at just 35 minutes, the meeting held very little discussion on the matter outside of three, one sentence statements. In the first, after a motion by Vern Bunke and a second by Roger Colbenson, Councilor Mark Honsey called the approval a good settlement. “It’s a win for the citizens of Rushford,” he said, after which the mayor offered Courrier a welcome.

“Thank you to the mayor and the council for giving me this opportunity,” responded Courrier.

In other news, the city has stated that information regarding the water utility, specific the running of water to avoid lateral pipe freezing, will be available at the next council meeting. According to Sarvi, the city is looking to set up a tiered system to deal with the added water usage and subsequent cost for those having to run water. Having been asked how many citizens are currently running water, City Clerk Kathy Zacher could only respond, “Lots.”

So far, it appears the freezing is happening in random locations, although there are a few cluster areas. The recent warm weather break has added to some problems driving the frost down further each time the weather cools again. “Some are just starting to run their water now,” cautioned Zacher.

The next regularly scheduled council meeting is Monday, March 24, at 6:30 p.m., at city hall. The public is encouraged to attend.

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