County 911 dispatchers plan to appeal judge's refusal to force arbitration

News-DemocratJuly 7, 2013 

Unless St. Clair County leaders and dispatchers voluntarily meet soon, the dispatchers' union plans to appeal a judge's refusal to order arbitration between union and county officials.

The key issue is dispatchers are not rewarded for their experience on the job and frequently leave CENCOM, the 911 answering serving at the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, for higher paying positions, according to union attorney James Daniels. Entry-level dispatchers earn $36,400 annually, yet an employee with 31 years experience with CENCOM only sees an increase to about $38,300.

"There's no sort of financial reward for staying at the job for a length of time," Daniels said. "There's a strong incentive to train and leave. I don't understand as their union representative what the hold-up is (with county officials)."

County Administrator Dan Maher and County Board Chairman Mark Kern could not reached for comment. County officials have previously declined comment on pending litigation.

St. Clair County Circuit Associate Judge Randall Kelley denied a request from the dispatchers to force arbitration between the two groups on May 15. The order stated a negotiated agreement between the county and CENCOM in 2009 did not include the option to force arbitration.

The dispatchers union, the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, had asked a judge to order the two groups to plead their case before a panel. County attorney Alvin Paulson had fought the request saying it was "frivolous" and "fraudulent," according to court documents.

The contract covering the county's 12 dispatchers expired in January 2012 and negotiations had been going on for about a year before that. Arbitration is needed to negotiate a pay scale that is fair for experienced dispatchers, according to Daniels.

Entry-level dispatchers at other departments in the metro-east are often higher-paid. New dispatchers earn $39,200 in O'Fallon and more than $50,000 in Collinsville. The result is many dispatchers have left CENCOM after a short time for more lucrative jobs in Belleville, O'Fallon, Collinsville and Highland, Daniels said.

"Honestly, it is not my goal to drag out arbitration," Daniels said. "This unit is very demoralized. They just want a contract with some sort of incentive to stay on the job and make a career of it as opposed to a springboard to working at a different place. I've invited the county repeatedly to meet to jumpstart the negotiation process again, but haven't received a date yet."

The average wage of a dispatcher with 10 years experience is $23.50 per hour in the metro-east, Daniels said. The same dispatcher makes an average of $17.39 per hour at CENCOM.

"If you could go down the street and make six more dollars an hour, who wouldn't take advantage of that?" Daniels said. "To add insult to injury, the county is hiring part-timers who make $18.50 an hour while full-timers make $17.50."

The CENCOM unit receives more than 90,000 calls annually and has been recognized by the FBI for excellence, Daniels said.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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