Arbitrator’s Award on Pay Raises for Prison Guards Costs Pennsylvania County $5 Million
by David M. Reutter
Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County Commission has been forced to dip into its reserve funds to comply with an “unaccountable” arbitration award that resulted in a 7% annual pay increase for the county’s prison guards.
In 2009, an arbitrator awarded pay increases of 7% to the guards for 2009, 2010 and 2011. The County Commissioners agreed to the raise in 2009, but refused to pay the increases for the next two years.
The Commissioners considered the arbitrator’s award to be advisory, as courts cannot force a legislative body to raise taxes. The Commonwealth Court disagreed and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to hear the county’s appeal in September 2013.
The County Commission faced a $4.4 million bill to pay prison guards the 7% raise. That did not sit well with Commission Chairman Scott Martin, who noted that no one else in county government received a raise in 2010 and 2011, and some employees faced pay freezes.
An “unaccountable arbitrator,” he said, should not be allowed to order pay increases absent approval by the County Commission.
“I just don’t think I’m comfortable with someone telling me I have to legislate,” Martin stated. “Am I going to be thrown in jail because I didn’t lift my hand?”
When county solicitor Crystal Clark advised that the consequences for failing to act could include contempt of court, however, Martin altered his position.
“I will be voting for this today because this is not the fault of prison employees,” he said. “I am voting for this for only one reason: for the people who work at the prison. Otherwise, I’d be walking out of this room.”
The county’s fight against the arbitration award cost about $175,000 in attorney fees and the interest on the back pay was around $432,000. In total, the pay raises, attorney fees and interest cost county taxpayers $4,957,092.
In June 2014, the County Commission voted 2 to 1 to shift almost $5 million in reserve funds to cover the raises for the prison guards and associated costs.
Additionally, on June 16, 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against Lancaster County in an unrelated case involving the classification of seven maintenance workers at the county prison. The union representing prison guards argued that the maintenance workers should be classified as guards.
The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) held that as the maintenance workers “were the only employees watching the inmates when they were outside, they played a role in the security of the prison, and, thus, were properly classified” as guards.
The Commonwealth Court overturned that ruling on appeal; the state Supreme Court reversed, however, finding the legislature had broadly defined “prison guard” and the PLRB “has a longstanding and consistent interpretation of the term ‘guards at prisons,’ which includes any employee that is responsible for the security of inmates at a prison.” See: Lancaster County v. Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, 94 A.3d 979 (Pa. 2014).
Commissioner Martin called the Court’s decision a “bad ruling” and an example of why “so many commonsense citizens are disillusioned with government.”
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Related legal case
Lancaster County v. Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board
|Cite||94 A.3d 979 (Pa. 2014)|
|Level||State Supreme Court|