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    Amid contract struggle with Northampton County, 120 human services workers set to strike

    By Anthony Salamone, The Morning Call,

    2024-06-13

    About 120 Northampton County Department of Human Services workers could strike next week, following a breakdown in negotiations over pay, benefits and staffing, according to a union representative.

    In April, workers with SEIU Local 668 delivered a petition to County Council asking the county to return to bargaining and reach a deal that satisfies workers, many of whom are with the county’s Children, Youth and Families division.

    “We have a definite problem with retention and recruitment,” Kezzy Johnson, a Human Services employee and Local 668 shop steward, said earlier this week.

    On Wednesday, Johnson said workers could strike June 21 if a contract is not reached. A negotiating session is scheduled for Monday, according to county Human Services Director Susan Wandalowski.

    Wandalowski said she has been working with supervisors on contingency plans should the workers walk off.

    “We will be prepared to provide coverage should they choose to strike,” she said.

    Johnson said some workers in Children, Youth and Families deal with long hours, stress and the potential dangers of entering the homes of sometimes volatile families to conduct interviews. Those factors, combined with low wages and the lack of enough staff in recent years, have contributed to workers’ concerns, she said.

    “We really do love our jobs,” said Johnson, a 15-year county employee. “It is getting harder and harder to maintain working there and keep living in the county.”

    She said starting salaries average $13 an hour; someone with a college degree could start about $18 per hour.

    Another key issue, Johnson said, is employee turnover. She said as of last week, the department had 30 vacancies. During County Council’s June 6 meeting, Johnson said nearly 200 employees have left the division since the pandemic in 2020.

    “We have been waiting for change to happen, but our voices have fallen on deaf ears,” she said during the meeting.

    On Wednesday, Wandalowski said despite current vacancies, the county has added 50 positions in Human Services since Lamont G. McClure became executive in 2018, with 40 of those in Children, Youth and Families.

    Council took no action June 6 on the petition or Johnson’s remarks. But council members did approve pay increases for workers at Gracedale who belong to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. The move is aimed at retaining workers instead of hiring outside agency staff to tend to the nursing home residents, according to the county administration.

    Wandalowski said the county has offered workers 15% pay raises over three years with contributions toward health insurance plans between one-quarter and one-half percent.

    “We have great employees and they provide much-needed services to the county,” Wandalowski said. “And we think this is a very fair offer.”

    She said employees have not seen increases in their health care contributions in at least six years, but she did not immediately know how much the employees are paying toward insurance. Johnson said SEIU workers have paid the most for health care for eight years out of the county’s multiple unions.

    Johnson disputed the county’s raise offer, saying it amounts to “significantly lower” than 15%, but she declined to elaborate, saying she did not want to negotiate pay and benefits publicly.

    Johnson said workers voted May 23 for the union to strike. Negotiations began months before the contract expired Jan. 1, she said.

    Besides Children, Youth and Family Services, the union workers represent the county’s Area Agency on Aging, Mental Health, Information and Referral and other offices, said representatives on both sides. Besides social workers, the employees serve as clerical workers, case aides and in other roles.

    The county’s unions encompass 10 labor agreements representing an unspecified number of its 1,700 employees, according to Human Resources Director Mary Lou Kaboly.

    Morning Call reporter Anthony Salamone can be reached at asalamone@mcall.com .

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