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School district, union debate on-call issue
The union bristles over a memo telling employees to be ready to staff emergency shelters. A state hearing officer's opinion is due in 45 days.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published September 25, 2007
LAND O'LAKES - Can the Pasco school district require all its employees to be on call to work in emergency shelters, even when they're not technically working? Or must it win contract concessions to make it so?
Those questions form the crux of an argument between the district and its employees union that first erupted the day before classes ended in the spring. The issue has simmered since, until reaching a state hearing officer last Tuesday.
Over the course of four hours, the two sides tried through questions and testimony to persuade Public Employees Relations Commission hearing officer Julie Steinmeyer, who attended via conference call, that they had the more credible claim. Steinmeyer said she would issue an opinion within 45 days.
The dispute arose with superintendent Heather Fiorentino's school-year ending memo to all employees, saying the district under Florida law must operate and staff evacuation shelters during emergencies, including during the summer. Fiorentino stressed that the district would prefer to use volunteers first, as it had done in the past.
But if not enough volunteers show up, she wrote, "I want you to be aware of your employment obligations."
The United School Employees of Pasco filed an unfair labor practices charge with the state a few months later. Its leaders contended that requiring all workers to be on call, even during times when they are not contracted to work, represented a major change from their terms of employment.
Under questioning Tuesday, union president Lynne Webb explained that she believed the superintendent would have "wide latitude" to assign employees if a declared emergency occurred. But in the abstract, Webb said, she doubted Fiorentino could unilaterally tell every district worker to remain available, just in case.
Most teachers work 196 days. The majority of support employees work 180 days or so.
The union wrote memos of opposition and urged the district to retract its stance. But it did not ask for negotiations, either in conversation or in writing, Bob Hall, the district's lawyer, pointed out several times.
Webb said she did not request negotiations because the superintendent had already sent out the memo, effectively imposing its position. But she reasserted her view that the administration should have asked to amend the contract before sending out the memo.
"It was a unilateral change. It changes it because it puts all employees on notice that they could be called to work any time of the day, any day of the week," Webb said, speculating further that it might have been possible for the superintendent to reprimand employees who did not comply.
Hall later asked if anyone ever said that employees would be disciplined if they didn't turn in their summertime emergency contact information.
No, Webb responded. "The district didn't discuss this at all. They just said this is what they were doing."
Terry Rhum, director of employee relations, said in testimony that the administration simply meant to inform employees about their statutory responsibilities. The district had been evaluating its emergency readiness since the busy 2004 hurricane season, Rhum said, and it wanted to make sure it could operate shelters effectively, if necessary.
Hurricane Katrina was not far from mind, either, he acknowledged when asked.
"I recall seeing on TV school buses that could have been used for evacuation that weren't used for evacuation, I believe, simply because they didn't have the personnel," said Rhum, who represents the district at the county Emergency Operations Center.
Still, he added, the district was ready to negotiate, and it still is. Only, he repeated, no one asked.
Tom Brooks, the union's lawyer, asked Rhum whether the district might have misinterpreted the law.
Florida statute requires school districts to operate the shelters, Brooks said, but does it say that current district employees must run them?
"The obvious inference is the district's employees are a resource and they're available," Rhum said.
"Well, that's the way you read it," Brooks responded, before moving on.
Rhum, Webb and union negotiator Jim Ciadella were the only witnesses called. The lawyers plan to submit closing arguments and proposed findings of facts in writing to the state before the final opinion is issued.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.