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Wage talks break down between Lawrence County DD, employees

Union rep says employees should strike

COAL GROVE — The Lawrence County DD Board and local union, Ohio Association of Public School Employees (OAPSE), were unable to negotiate a successor collective bargaining agreement that was to be put in place on July 1, despite federal mediation.

This was the first time the two parties came to the table to bargain a contract since the agency failed two levies in 2019 and 2020. The union is made up of school and Early Intervention staff.

The union’s chief negotiator, a salaried employee of the Ohio Civil Service Employees’ Association, has indicated she will ask the employees to vote on a strike.

Lawrence County DD superintendent Julie Monroe said they are confident that the employees will not vote to withhold services from the people they serve, especially considering that, under the implemented contract, every one of them will receive more pay each year.

Once it was agreed by both parties that ultimate impasse had been reached, the Lawrence County DD Board exercised its statutory right to unilaterally implement a contract based on the board’s last best offer.

The new contract guarantees that, each year for three years, every member of the bargaining unit will receive more money, at least two percent.

The board’s only other option was to move forward with no contract and no wage increases for anyone, an option unanimously rejected by the board.

Monroe said the major source of contention was around wages.

The board implemented a new compensation system that is already in effect for non-bargaining unit members and administration. The new system is based on a model utilized by most DD programs in the state, as well as most DD programs in the local region.

“The new system caps salaries once they reach a certain threshold that is outside of the market for a position. It also guarantees that staff are paid a fair rate,” Monroe said.

She added the union insisted on keeping an outdated salary schedule system for all employees, in addition to “across the board” raises for each employee each year.

“Given our current circumstances, the union’s demand was a bridge too far,” she said.

The union rejected an offer from the board to delete a sick leave incentive program that paid employees a small quarterly sum for “perfect attendance.”

Debbie Jones, board president, said that the board abolished this policy in July for all non-bargaining staff.

“This was done to stop incentivizing staff to come to work sick. Also, the board considers this a ‘perk’ that no longer serves the purpose it once did when it was operating several programs,” Jones said. “Our program is much smaller, and the board did not feel it was fiscally responsible to continue providing this incentive.”

According to Monroe, at least half of the agency’s funding comes from local tax dollars.

“Although we receive the funding from the Ohio Department of Education for the students we serve, we have a maximum of eight students per classroom,” Monroe said. “Currently, we have 48 students enrolled for the upcoming school year. We are thankful the local school districts picked up additional costs after our levies failed, but there are still excess costs to operating the school.”

Steve Thompson, chair of the board’s finance committee, is concerned about continued funding to provide mandated services.

“DD Boards have many other financial obligations, as we are required by law to provide funding for people with DD to receive services in the community, and there are currently 237 individuals enrolled in that program,” Thompson said. “There’s also 37 people on a waiting list for the service, which is way above the state average for our size.”

Providing matching funds for home and community based Medicaid Waiver services is a statutory responsibility of all County DD programs in Ohio.

“In order to stay operational and serve as many people as possible in Lawrence County on our current budget, everyone has to give a little,” said Monroe. “Even then, I am confident that our staff are paid fair and decent wages and benefits, and have a great place to work.”