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Will County prepping for possible employee strike

Updated: August 13, 2013 6:43AM



JOLIET — Will County department heads have been encouraged to postpone summer vacations and prepare for a possible strike by union employees.

County officials say negotiations are going well and a strike is unlikely, but they want to be prepared — just in case.

“Our managers certainly are taking precautions,” said Bruce Tidwell, the county’s director of human resources. “We have to provide services to the public.”

Union workers include clerks in a variety of county offices, sheriff’s deputies, highway department employees, probation officers, Sunny Hill nursing home and health department staffers, etc. The only county office that does not have a union staff is the treasurer’s office.

Dave Delrose, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — the county’s biggest union with 1,260 members — said the two sides are far apart on wages and insurance costs.

AFSCME members have scheduled informational picketing outside the Will County Office Building on July 18 prior to the county board meeting. They also have voted to authorize the union’s negotiation committee to call a strike vote if necessary.

“We don’t want a strike,” Tidwell said. “I’m sure they don’t want a strike. We’d like to come to an agreement and we are making progress.”

Delrose said union workers haven’t had a raise in three years because of the recession. All workers got were “step” increases, a 2.5 percent hike for an additional year worked until a maximum cap is reached, which varies based on position.

“Our goal is not to go on strike, obviously,” Delrose said. “We want to get a fair settlement, and our members want to be treated fairly.”

All of the county’s union contracts expired about Dec. 1. So far, there have been no contract settlements with AFSCME members or members of unions covering sheriff’s deputies, sheriff’s officers, assistant state’s attorneys and public defenders. A federal mediator has been called in to help and so far there have been three sessions with him, Tidwell said. The next session is set for July 19.

Delrose said union members know they will have to chip in more for rising insurance costs, but they want wage increases to compensate for that.

“What they are offering us is barely going to cover the insurance increases,” he said. “If the county wants to make a major health shift to the employees, they have to be fair with wages.”

Some county workers earn as little as about $23,000, Delrose said. They qualify for state public assistance benefits, and they can’t afford to take the county’s insurance and its co-pay fees and deductibles, he said.

County officials involved in negotiations believe all is going well.

“I think we’re making progress,” said Paul Rafac, the county’s finance director.

Rafac said there is no new money in the budget for bigger pay raises.

“The county is continuing to try to control costs,” he said.

Nick Palmer, chief of staff for County Executive Larry Walsh, said negotiations are progressing.

“We value our employees, but at the end of the day, we have a responsibility to balance the books,” he said.



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