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Unable to resolve dispute, county and union head to arbitration

This story has been appended with a clarification.

Columbia County's courthouse employees union is headed to arbitration in an effort to resolve a contract dispute following the county's implementation of a furlough program that had the effect of trimming some employee salaries.

Evan Wickersham, council representative for AFSCME Council 75, said the county misused expedited bargaining when it effectively altered conditions of the existing courthouse employees contract to take money from the employees.

'First, we think that they improperly used that process. Second, our contract guarantees a certain amount of hours per week,' Wickersham said.

AFSCME Council 75 is the labor union representing some 25,000 workers in Oregon, most of whom are public employees, according to information on the union's website.

Expedited bargaining is defined by law as the process an employer uses to negotiate over employment conditions during the term of a collective bargaining agreement, such as what the county and the union have in place.

Wickerham argued, however, it is not intended for use to substantively change the conditions of a contract. Instead, he said, it is used when a broader law or policy change affecting the agreement requires the two parties to re-enter talks over a 90-day period to effectuate the change.

He further argued Columbia County is the only public agency in his experience to use the process to reduce salaries.

County administrators in July implemented the furlough program, resulting in Friday closures of the Columbia County Courthouse. County employees and managers who work in the courthouse had their salaries adjusted down 10 percent to reflect the uncompensated day off.

The purpose of the program was to bring the county's budget in line with reduced revenue and expanding expenses, such as PERS. Other measures included dipping into $750,000 of cash reserves.

A neutral arbitrator is expected to hear arguments from each side in January, with an opinion expected in February or March.

Employees with the county's Road Department and the Sheriff's Office were not affected by the furloughs.

Wickersham said employee layoffs and maintaining living-wage jobs are preferable to the furloughs, which kept staff at reduced compensation.

He also said county management should have better anticipated its revenue drop-off and should not have negotiated the courthouse employees' current contract considering the volatility of revenue sources.

County Commissioner Tony Hyde said the intent of adopting furloughs versus making staffing cuts was to balance the budget and ensure the employees retain benefits and hold positions pending some economic upswing.

Also, he said further layoffs cuts could render some departments not functional.

'It comes to a point where you fall in on your own weight, and that's kind of what you're looking at,' he said.

Hyde, who along with the other commissioners also had his salary cut as part of the furlough program, said he knows it has been a painful transition.

'Yeah it hurts. I agree,' he said. 'I get it. But what do you do? We can't make money.'

Clarification: Courthouse employees are on furlough every other Friday, accounting for 26 unpaid days, hence the 10 percent pay reduction. Though the Columbia County Courthouse is closed to the public every Friday, courthouse employees report to work on the Fridays they are not on furlough.