County workers go on strike
More than 60 Westmoreland County workers, many of them responsible for the well-being of abused and neglected children, took to the streets on Wednesday bearing signs saying they've been treated unfairly after months of failed contract negotiations.
"We're out here doing what we have to do. Nobody wants to be out here, but it's a strong conviction that this is what needs to be done," said Julia Snyder, a union steward and 28-year veteran caseworker with the county's children's bureau.
Snyder, along with fellow members of Teamsters Local 205, went on strike at 10 a.m. yesterday. The union represents caseworkers and clerical staff in the children's bureau and mental health/mental retardation office.
At issue are contract offers involving increased health care costs and decreased sick time that the union does not want to accept because of low salaries and a nonexistent short-term disability plan. The contract expired in December, but the union had been working under an extension.
Before striking, the union asked the county to bring in an arbitrator in an effort to solve the differences. The county was not receptive to the idea.
Commissioner Tom Ceraso said he thinks an arbitrator would compromise the county's wish that the Teamsters begin paying into health care premiums, a shift officials would like to see happen for all employees.
"We feel it's better to not involve a third party," he said. "An arbitrator typically does not introduce anything into an employer-employee relationship that wasn't already there."
A meeting between the commissioners and Children's Bureau Director Marilyn McSparrin was called early yesterday after county officials received word that the employees would be walking out.
"We don't want any child to suffer over this," said Commissioner Phil Light. "That's the main focus at this point."
McSparrin said a contingency plan is in effect, distributing the average of 17 families overseen by each of the county's 40 caseworkers to 16 supervisors who will temporarily handle the work.
"We're continuing the court schedule," she said. "We prioritize all the time, but of course the priorities shift."
With new cases filed daily, some of the caseworkers on the picket line expressed concern about the care of the children.
"I'm hoping that the powers that be will listen to reason and see that the kids are the ones that are going to suffer," said caseworker Brenda Welch.
Commissioner Tom Balya, chairman of the three-member board, said the county is willing to go back to the bargaining table.
Teamsters representative Allison Maksin said the union is willing to negotiate, too. Both sides, however, do not appear to believe the other is willing to work out the contract.
"They have not notified us to that effect," Maksin said. "We've always wanted to go back to the table."
Light said, "We have not had, after we made our offer, any meaningful response to that other than the arbitration offer. ... We are open to negotiations at any time."
Children's bureau caseworkers have a starting salary of about $29,000 a year, according to county records. Most unionized clerical workers in the office are paid between $20,000 and $24,000 a year.
"By the time you get hit with all the taxes, union dues and retirement, take-home pay hurts," said caseworker Frank Marscelli.
County employees contribute 9 percent of their salaries toward the pension plan.
None of the county's roughly 2,000 workers pays health care premiums, which are expected to cost taxpayers more than $13 million this year. Copayments are required on doctor's visits and medications, though.
Children's bureau caseworkers investigated 1,983 reports of abuse in neglect in 2003, a number that grew by 276 over 2002, according to the most recent statistics made available in the bureau's 2005-06 plan.
Those reports involved 5,552 cases, with about 184 cases assigned for investigation each month.
The Teamsters unit last went on strike in 1993. The walkout lasted 32 days.