Workers can't be forced to shelters

A state panel says school employees can't be forced to staff emergency shelters during summer.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published January 16, 2008

LAND O'LAKES - Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino can't unilaterally force school district employees to be on call to staff emergency shelters during summer, the state Public Employees Relations Commission ruled Tuesday.

A "call-back procedure" like the one Fiorentino put forth in a May memo to employees is a mandatory subject of collective bargaining because it impacts wages, hours and conditions of employment, the commission stated. It ordered Fiorentino to rescind that memo and to negotiate before changing district procedures for staffing shelters.

"I feel vindicated," said Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, which filed its unfair labor practices complaint with the state last summer. "We do have a collective bargaining law in Florida. I am pleased that the commission upheld that."

School Board member Marge Whaley, chairwoman at the time of the memo's release, said she was not surprised at the commission's ruling, even though it reversed an order recommended by a hearing officer assigned to the complaint.

"That deal would not have worked anyway," Whaley said of Fiorentino's memo, which stated that if necessary the district would call upon employees to work at emergency shelters, even if the employees are not technically working. "It was not able to be enforced."

Whaley and current board chairwoman Kathryn Starkey said they expected the district to comply with the order to negotiate. Whaley said the district has a "wonderful opportunity" to fix something that shouldn't have happened in the first place.

"I hope this opportunity will not be bypassed," she said.

Starkey, meanwhile, said she was confident that the district's existing procedure of relying on volunteers to run the shelters would remain successful.

"We've never had a shortage of people who have stepped up and wanted to help," Starkey said.

She added that she was "just thankful that we didn't have any hurricanes and it was a nonissue during the summer."

Fiorentino has said repeatedly that she did not intend to change the district's reliance on volunteers.

But the state requires school districts to operate shelters during emergencies, and the district needs people to do the work. The memo simply reminded employees of their statutory responsibilities, she has said.

The administration did offer to negotiate the impact, but the union didn't take it up, assistant superintendent Renalia DuBose said Tuesday.

That doesn't change the district's right to implement a call-back procedure, though, she added, calling the smooth operations of the shelters a "matter of public safety."

It simply means that the district must work out the mechanics of it with the workers first.

DuBose said the administration will ask the School Board if it wants to appeal the commission's ruling in court when the board meets next week.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or 813 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.