Havre Daily News
Police union representatives say they're upset with a new city labor contract proposal they say would virtually eliminate overtime pay for officers.
The proposal would require officers to work an additional 11 hours every four weeks before they are eligible for overtime pay.
City negotiators and police union representatives Tuesday night held a lengthy and often contentious discussion on the proposal, which would also change how officers' shifts are scheduled.
City negotiators did not bring a proposed work schedule for officers to the meeting. Police union representatives said the city's proposal is a dramatic change and expressed doubts that the city would be able to come up with a workable schedule for officers.
The union and city negotiators began negotiations anew Tuesday because officers rejected a proposed contract in September. The new contract proposal comes at a time when Police Chief Mike Barthel has said officers are working too many hours because he has not been allowed to fill an officer vacancy.
A team of city negotiators, which included City Attorney Mary VanBuskirk, said the change would benefit officers by offering greater scheduling flexibility.
Montana Public Employees Association representative Tom Bivins said today he is “not in the least bit optimistic” that the union and city can come to an agreement on the proposal.
“What I heard from Mary VanBuskirk is that this was going to be a better situation for the officers,” he said. “The city's proposal is basically to take away an economic benefit, i.e. overtime. ... I fail to see how that translates to a better situation for the officers.”
Bivins said today he doesn't know if the proposal is related to a staffing shortage at the Police Department, which has required many officers to work overtime.
“I would suspect that, but I don't know that,” he said. “They're currently doing vacancy savings (by not filling the position). They have to know that if they're going to continue 24-hour coverage, they're going to have to pay for it one way or another, whether it be through overtime or through an officer's salary that is currently being held back.”
VanBuskirk and Havre City Council member Terry Schend, who chairs the City Council's Labor Relations Committee, could not be reached for comment today.
Bivins said the union rejected the first contract proposal for two main reasons. He said the union thought it was unfair for Havre firefighters to receive a 3 percent raise during the second year of their contract when other city unions were told that all workers were going to receive a 3 percent raise for each year of their two-year contracts.
He also said he was not comfortable with a contract provision to renegotiate the health insurance package in the second year of the contract.
The package Bivins brought to the table Tuesday night was similar to the contract police officers had rejected. It included a 3 percent increase for 2006-2007, provided conditions for reopening the contract to discuss health insurance, and again raised the issue of officers' holiday compensation.
Tuesday night, city negotiators proposed granting the extra percent raise in the second year of the contract in exchange for accepting a new work schedule and the change in overtime.
Bivins and Havre police Sgt. Bill Wilkinson, a union contract negotiator, both said they were disappointed that the city had come back to the table with such a drastic change.
Police officers' overtime is now based on a 40-hour work week. The city's proposal would classify the officers under an exemption in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
That change would create a 28-day work schedule, during which officers would have to work 171 hours before they are eligible for overtime pay. Under the 40-hour standard, officers are eligible for overtime after 160 hours over the same number of days.
VanBuskirk noted that Havre firefighters are on a 28-day work schedule. They must work 212 hours before they receive overtime.
Firefighters work a 24-hour shift followed by 72 hours off.
Wilkinson said police officers will not be pleased with a proposal that requires them to work an additional 11 hours before getting overtime pay. Officers are now working a lot of overtime because of the staffing shortage at the Police Department, he said.
“It's not something we look for,” he said. “But you're taking that overtime pay away.”
He told committee members they do not understand all the sacrifices police officers make. Often, officers will travel on their own nickel to voluntary training they are not paid for, Wilkinson said. The Police Department does not make the training mandatory in order to get out of paying for it, he said. The training allows officers to advance their certification and stay up-to-date, he said.
Wilkinson said the department has tried different work schedules over the years to alleviate the differences in how much each officer works. Under the current schedule, some officers work more hours annually than others, but the amount each works varies from year to year, he said.
Wilkinson and Bivins said they could not consider switching to a 28-day work period without seeing proposed schedules.
Wilkinson added that he doesn't need to see the proposed schedules to know that the changes will not work out.
“We have tried,” he said. “It isn't going to work, not with the manpower we have.”
VanBuskirk and Labor Relations Committee members said they want to work with the union to develop the schedules.
“Let's exchange information,” VanBuskirk said. She agreed that Barthel, who was not at the meeting, and police officers should be involved in coming up with a new schedule.
“This is a huge change,” Bivins said during the meeting. “We'll look at it so we're better informed. We need to do this soon. Without that (scheduling information), we're at an impasse.”
Bivins also said the police union can go to binding arbitration with the city under a new state law.
City Council president Rick Pierson responded that the committee wanted to bring options to the table and did not need to hear threats of arbitration. Bivins said he was not making a threat, but informing committee members of the union's options.