County: Throw out arbitrator's ruling giving 7 percent raise to jailers

News-DemocratFebruary 17, 2014 

St. Clair County is asking a judge to throw out an arbitrator's decision giving correctional officers a nearly 7 percent raise and allowing changes in disciplinary procedures.

In October, arbitrator Daniel Nielsen awarded correctional officers the right to have disciplinary action against them, including unpaid leave, reviewed by an arbitrator. Previously, jailers faced up to 30 days of suspension before a panel appointed by the sheriff who reviewed penalties.

The ruling held the past practice as "on its face unfair" and noted jailers could lose 348 hours of pay (about a sixth of the work year) for a single infraction without review.

Nielsen also ruled in favor of the corrections officers' proposal for pay increases. The officers received retroactive increases of 2 percent in 2012; 2.25 percent in 2013, and a 2.5 percent increase in 2014. Nielsen rejected the county's offer of no wage increase in 2012, and raises of 1.25 percent in 2013 and 2.25 percent in 2014.

Now attorneys for the county have petitioned a St. Clair County judge to throw out the arbitrator's ruling.

County officials believe Nielsen "exceeded his authority" by allowing the officers' union, the Fraternal Order of Police, to include as evidence the terms of a contract in Madison County after the deadline to do so. They also argue Nielsen should have compared St. Clair County's unionized jailers with non-union jailers in the City of St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County in Missouri.

The officers' attorney, James Daniels of the Fraternal Order of Police, said it was wrong for the county to characterize the arbitrator's ruling as a "radical decision."

"The arbitration award was very much in line with the vast number of awards given throughout the state," Daniels said. "It is very standard to have arbitrators compare Illinois counties to Illinois counties, and giving employees the opportunity to have discipline reviewed by someone."

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern could not be reached for comment.

Discipline without review

Daniels said the main issue at contention is the ability for jailers to have a way to ask for a review of disciplinary action.

In the past, an officer could only appeal disciplinary action of 30 days or more before the county's five-member Merit Commission. For example, an officer could be placed on unpaid leave for 29 days without a review.

Nielsen found "the existing system provides no possibility of relief for persons experiencing discipline, even significant discipline, until a threshold of 30 days." The ruling allows for the continued use of the Merit Commission, whose members are appointed by the St. Clair County sheriff.

County officials argued the "right to discipline up to 30 days is a very valuable condition of employment" and "it cannot be expected to simply give it away" when "the union has offered nothing in the form of a quid pro quo."

The Merit Commission provides "extensive due process protections, according to county officials, and employees can appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.

Daniels said the 22 neighboring and comparable counties to St. Clair County allow correctional officers to seek a third-party review of discipline.

"What (the arbitrator) did was grant the same benefit jailers and deputies throughout the state have enjoyed in some form or another for years," Daniels said.

Raises at stake

St. Clair County's offer of a 3.5 percent wage increase over three years is significantly lower than agreements in four comparable counties. Those agreements averaged a 7.7 percent wage increase between 2012 and 2014. The union had proposed and was awarded a 6.75 percent over three years.

St. Clair County officials dispute Nielsen ruling that the wages paid to correctional officers in neighboring Missouri counties were irrelevant. Instead, Nielsen compared St. Clair County to the Illinois counties of Madison, Champaign, Peoria and Sangamon.

Part of the reason county officials want the arbitrator to compare pay with Missouri counties is the jailers there are non-union and generally paid less, Daniels said.

"I do not know of a single case when comparables are done out of state and also with non-union groups," Daniels said, adding such a comparison would be akin to comparing apples to oranges.

Missouri counties have not been considered in past arbitration awards as valid comparisons to the metro-east labor market.

The previous contract between correctional officers and the county expired in December 2011.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at or 618-239-2501.

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