Board suspends rules to add contract to agenda
Lehigh County commissioners suspended “rules of the board” at their Aug. 14 meeting and added the long-delayed human service’s union contract to their agenda.
Even that was not without drama as commissioners voted 8-1 to authorize the exception to regular order which allowed the contract to be added to the already published agenda.
Commissioner Geoff Brace objected suspending the rules to add the contract to the agenda in such an irregular fashion.
Human Services workers have been working without an agreement since Dec. 31, 2018.
Now on the commissioners’ agenda for its first reading, Commissioner Amy Zanelli objected to late delivery of the agreement.
Zanelli said she had only seen a copy of the document just a few hours before the meeting.
“I’m going to support this,” said Zanelli said, criticizing the entire negotiating process. “The board involved itself in union negotiations. That has not gone well.”
Zanelli said she was “embarrassed to see the county put this forward because it hurts the most vulnerable of our employees.”
She noted the new contract does not allow employees on any type of extended leave such as sick leave, maternity or paternity leave, to continue to accrue compensatory time.
“This hurts,” Zanelli said. “This is kicking people when they are down.”
Human services worker Michele Fritz confirmed Zanelli’s understanding of the proposed contract.
“That’s exactly what it means,” Fritz said. “Anyone who has five or more sick days in a 10-day period will not accrue vacation time or sick time during that time.
“For example, 10 years ago, when I had to take 11 weeks of sick time for a cancer diagnosis, I did not accrue any sick time or vacation time while I was out. That sickens me.”
Service Employees International Union Local 668 shop steward Frank Gerlach commented.
“It comes down to the process,” Gerlach said. “You say we are appreciated but those are words. Actions speak louder than words.
“We’ve been taking the human out of human services for about the past eight years.
“This is a board of nine but these negotiations have become a process of three.”
Gerlach was referring to the three board members on the negotiating team: Commissioners Amanda Holt, Percy Dougherty and Marty Nothstein.
County Executive Phillips Armstrong said the administration had been kept in the dark through most of the process.
Armstrong initially said he had not seen the proposed agreement at all, but a staffer acknowledged the document had been delivered to his staff.
The Human Services Department is under Armstrong’s jurisdiction.
The collective bargaining agreement is dated May 23, 2019, but there was no explanation as to why it was not on the June or July agendas.
The contract calls for a 2.5-percent pay or “step” increase in the current pay scale, however those employees at the top of the pay scale will get a 2.5-percent of their base pay in the form of a lump payment.
Workers will receive a 3.15-percent pay raise effective Jan. 1, 2020, and again on Jan. 1 2022.
Being bilingual earns workers additional pay when they use their foreign language skills on the job. Speaking a foreign language as part of the job one or two times in a pay period earns an extra $100 for each month foreign language skills are used.
If a foreign language is used three or more times, the bilingual stipend is $150.
The new contract adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes.
In other business, commissioners adopted the 2020-24 Lehigh County Capital Plan. Language in the plan stipulates the new ordinance “is a policy statement only and is in no way to be construed as a budget or an appropriation.
Highlights of the capital plan include: $1,225,000 over the next five years for replacement of county vehicles; $2,325,000 equally spread over 2021 and 2022 for D&L Trail expansion from Cementon to Allentown; $1,100,000 in 2021 for Trexler Nature Preserve Road repairs; $1,444,000 over 2020 and 2022 for Cedar Creek Parkway West expansion and improvement; $1,000,000 in 2021 for Lock Ridge Park Furnace repair; $1,225,003 spread over 2020 and 2024 for Seager’s Quarry Bridge repair or maintenance; $2,500,000 in 2020 for Coplay to Northampton bridge over the Lehigh River; and $1,000,000 in 2020 for renovations and restoration in the Old Courthouse.
The largest allocation is $10,600,000 over five years for agricultural conservation easements.
In other business, Angela Vullo from the Committee for the American System Glass-Steagall National Infrastructure Bank based in Leesburg, Va., urged commissioners to support the establishment of an infrastructure bank with interstate authority to finance such ambitious and expensive projects as high-speed rail passenger service.
She did not ask the board to take any action or make a resolution in support of the idea, but said in an interview with The Press, she and her colleagues were speaking to various levels of government and to private citizens’ groups to educate them on the concept of “infrastructure banks,” a concept developed by Alexander Hamilton.
Vullo said her goal is to get legislation proposed in Congress facilitating establishment of the bank.