By a vote of 8-1, Lehigh County commissioners delayed action on a three-year contract with unionized workers at the Cedarbrook nursing homes until mid-August.
The proposed three-year contract with Local 1776 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union includes annual wage increases of one 1.5 percent, 2 percent and 2.5 percent.
The union represents more than 500 employees at Cedarbrook. Their previous contract expired Dec. 31.
Before the vote to defer, Daniel McCarthy, the county’s director of administration, unsuccessfully urged commissioners to approve the agreement Wednesday night.
The contract was up for final approval. The bill to approve the agreement was introduced at the July 9 commissioners meeting.
Commissioners said they received information from the administration about the proposed agreement as late as 3 p.m. Wednesday, only hours before they were to vote on it.
“To do our job fairly, we need to have time to digest the information that we got just this week, even as recently as this afternoon,” said Commissioner Brad Osborne.
“I’m not comfortable voting on this contract until I can get my arms around what it will cost to implement,” said Commissioner Vic Mazziotti.
“If we don’t accept this, we’re asking the administration to go back to the bargaining table with the union,” said Commissioner David Jones, the only one who voted against deferring action until the Aug. 13 meeting.
Jones said the administration negotiated with the union based on input provided by commissioners and that commissioners had a representative sit in on the negotiations.
“We gave them what they were asking for from us in terms of a sense of direction and they moved with that,” said Jones.
Jones said now that the negotiations have been completed and an agreement has been reached between the administration and the union, commissioners suddenly have additional concerns. He said those concerns should have been raised earlier in the process, before an agreement was reached.
Commissioner Michael Schware said if commissioners are obligated to approve the contract no matter what’s negotiated, “why are we even taking a vote on it?”
Commissioner Percy Dougherty said commissioners have the final vote on all union contracts by state law. He said any agreement reached between the county administration and a union is only tentative approval pending final approval by the commissioners
Commissioner Lisa Scheller said the information is being sought so commissioners are satisfied the administration acted within the guidelines that all the commissioners discussed.
“All we’re asking is what’s it going to cost the county?” said Mazziotti. “We’re not suggesting they change anything.” He raised that same question on July 9 and said then that he expected to get answers from the administration before it was time to vote on the contract.
Asked Jones: “If we’re uncomfortable with the numbers, are we suggesting to the administration and the union that they’ll have to go back to the bargaining table?”
“That’s not what I’m suggesting,” said Osborne. “I’m just suggesting we are given more opportunity to understand the material before us.”
Commissioner Geoff Brace said they received a lot of information about the contract in the last several days and wondered if some of his colleagues will need even more. “It’s incumbent upon us, if we are going to defer, to put on the table right now what more information we need.”
Said Mazziotti: “I’m not aware that I need any more information at this point.”
However, Mazziotti added further feedback can generate additional questions. “But based on what I’ve received so far, and what I know so far, I don’t have any additional questions and I don’t think I’ll come up with any other questions, but I can’t be sure until we get into a discussion that might lead to another question.”
Noting there are three weeks until the next commissioners meeting, Brace recommended his colleagues process the information they have and get any more they need within the next week.
After the meeting, county Executive Thomas Muller said it’s a mystery why commissioners still need more information when they got the agreement on July 3.
Muller said the commissioners “gave us direction on wages, which we beat and then delivered major give-backs that completely wiped out the wage increase impact.”
The contract includes a reduction in sick days, which is expected to save the county money.
“Your direction to us has been met,” McCarthy told commissioners. “It is in the contract. It is in the numbers. The contract is favorable to Lehigh County.”
Mazziotti told Jones he was doing a good job representing the administration’s position, “but we have responsibilities as a board.”
Countered Jones: “I’m representing the integrity of this board as a body that the union can feel it can negotiate with in good faith.”
Schware said he will evaluate the contract in the context of the county budget. He noted last year commissioners had to put several million dollars into Cedarbrook that they had not anticipated.
McCarthy told commissioners the administration simultaneously is negotiating four union contracts.