By JIMMY LAWTON
CANTON -- Negotiations are not yet underway but the president of the newly formed St. Lawrence County Indigent Defenders union says the county is already acting in poor faith.
Stephen Ballan, union president, says he received an email stating that the county would be increasing employee health contributions and withholding a previously approved raise until an agreement is reached between the two entities.
Ballan said the raise was agreed upon prior to the negotiations and should not be rescinded.
“That’s already an existing term or condition of our employment. Come Jan. 1, if we don’t have raises, we’ll be looking into this. This may constitute as an unfair labor practice,” he said.
Ballan said the county was “leveraging its money” against the union.
“They are going to charge us more money for health insurance, but they are not going to give us a raise that they’ve promised us,” he said. “I don’t know what is making them want to do something like this.”
Christopher S. Boulio, St. Lawrence County’s Director of Human Resources and chief negotiator, said he would not discuss negotiations. He said the Taylor Act requires the county to maintain the “status quo” while negotiations are underway and that the county intends to comply with the law.
“I do my negotiating at the table,” he said.
Boulio said the bargaining will begin after Jan. 1, and will take place behind closed doors.
“Typical ground rules are no media releases until an agreement is reached,” he said.
Both Ballan and Boulio said a public defenders union is rare. Boulio said it’s the first time he had ever heard of such a union and said he did not expect it to be good for the county.
“I don’t see any way it could be a benefit for the county,” he said.
Ballan said it might be the first time public defenders have ever unionized in New York State.
“As far as I know, we might be the first.” He said.
Ballan said the public defenders and conflict defenders decided to form a union to ensure they were represented and treated fairly.
He said the county unilaterally decided to cap compensatory time, or “comp” time, at 140 hours this fall even though many employees had exceeded that amount by more than 100 hours.
“We felt this was no different than reaching into our bank accounts and taking away the pay checks they had paid us,” he said. “It was hours we had already worked for.”
Ballan said he was unsure of the exact hours that had been taken away, but said collectively it could have totaled in the thousands.
He said that prior to the cap, comp time was issued on a “use it or lose it” basis, meaning if it wasn’t used within 120 days, it would disappear. He said that in 2012 the public defender’s office, not including the conflict defenders, gave up 2,000 hours.
“That was all right. We knew if we didn’t use it we’d lose it, but that’s different from having it taken away,” he said.
Ballan said it was the equivalent of changing the rules in the middle of the game.
“They didn’t even discuss it with us,” he said.
Ballan said the public defenders are paid on the same scale as other attorneys employed by the county and that wasn’t altogether a bad thing.
“Think of it in terms of attorneys in the county are on the same pay schedule, that in itself may not be something horrible, but at the Social Security office they work nine to five. They don’t go to court at night, they don’t get called out,” he said. “We work nine to five also, but we do all the night courts. It’s the same job title, the same pay, but it’s more time.”
Ballan said the decision to unionize was about equity.
“We aren’t looking to strike. That’s not even on the table for us. What we are looking for is just to be treated fairly and that’s all.”