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Officers seek independent representation

TIM WILLIS

Unhappy with their pay and their union representation, Nevada County’s correctional officers and bailiffs are asking a judge for permission to form their own bargaining unit.

Nevada County Correctional Officers Association, representing 57 bailiffs and correctional officers, insists that the unique challenges and dangers of their job entitle them to their own bargaining unit.

Currently, the officers are represented by the Operating Engineers Stationary Local No. 39, which bargains for 650 of the county’s workers.

The officers’ demanding job puts them into close contact with inmates who are increasingly becoming a danger to themselves and others, association President William O’Connor testified in a court hearing Friday.

Some inmates are desperate because they face long prison stints under the “three-strikes” rules, according to O’Connor and association lawyer Stuart Adams. Others are younger inmates who want to make a reputation for themselves by hurting an officer, O’Connor explained.

“It is getting to be a more hostile environment,” O’Connor said of the jail.

The officers require special training to subdue violent inmates, prevent suicides, and perform a host of other special functions, O’Connor said. The officers also transport inmates and must be trained in firearm use, O’Connor said. Furthermore, correctional officers serve as court bailiffs.

Under questioning from the association’s attorney, Adams, O’Connor pointed out that the officers’ jobs were considerably different from others in their bargaining units, such as animal control officers and dispatchers. None of those other workers have direct contact in the jail with inmates, O’Connor repeatedly stressed under questioning.

During a cross-examination, Chief Deputy County Counsel Mark Rathe questioned whether pay was simply the driving concern for the correctional officers. Rathe tried to point out that low pay was in fact a common concern for other county employees as well.

Rathe further noted that the county was embarking on a study of its work force to determine how competitive the pay was for its employees. County officials have hinted that this could lead to salary adjustments.

Correctional officers, however, cited other factors in their demand for a separate bargaining unit, such as special needs for equipment and training. O’Connor insisted the low pay was causing staffing shortages at the jail. The officers earn between $10.71 and $14.44 per hour, according to O’Connor. Rathe countered that some vacancies resulted from medical leaves.

Another witness for the correctional officers, jail Sgt. George Kessler, said he knew of at least 15 to 20 correctional officers who left for higher-paying jobs. Some became deputies for the Sheriff’s Department, Kessler said, but many left for similar but higher-paying posts in other counties.

Addressing the correctional officers who became deputies, Rathe suggested that this may be a natural career path for correctional officers.

Although he is not an association member, Kessler testified that he supported the group’s bid for a separate bargaining unit. Like O’Connor, Kessler also felt Local 39’s representation of the officers was inadequate

The correctional officer’s case is being heard in a non-jury trial before Judge Kathleen Butz.

The hearing was continued until May 3.


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