About two dozen court employees stood outside the Main Street Courthouse late Tuesday afternoon, picketing to raise awareness of their impending pay cuts.
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The employees face between 8 and 18.4 percent pay cuts, depending on location and seniority, said James Britton, a representative of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Stationary Engineers Local 39, or up to a $683 pay cut each month. This includes the courts no longer paying 7 percent into employee retirement funds.
Negotiations began last August, Britton said, but ended last month after four meetings. A single day was spent with a mediator, but no agreement was made. The employees offered to do some fact-finding, but the court administration “refused to participate,” Britton said. “We offered cuts to mitigate” the losses in budget, “but if it wasn’t their idea, they didn’t like it.”
Instead, the court informed the employees that the last, best and final offer would be imposed on May 18.
Britton said the employees are still interested in meeting with the court if “they are willing to be realistic.” But, being realistic, Britton said it’s likely nothing will change unless the budget changes.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “We’re the lowest paid group in the state” who is suffering a “drastic” cut while the state recovers from recent budgets, even though the budget is “bounds and leaps” improved from what they believed the budget would be.
Shelli Tuttle, a court reporter, called the offer “devastating” to the employees. One employee, she said, would qualify for food stamps after the cuts. A few were worrying about losing their houses.
“It’s a lean state of staffing,” she said. “They can’t lay off, they physically can’t lay people off” because “there would be nobody to meet the needs of the court.” As it is, she said, pro tem reporters have to be scheduled every day for other courtrooms, including Departments 7 and 9.
Meanwhile, she said, Court Executive Officer Tania Ugrin-Capobianco has been “bragging about her new car, her diamond ring” and looking into property in the area. “We hear that stuff.”
Tuttle noted that, in her 13 years working for the courts, she only received a single raise — a meager 1 percent. Which, she added, she gave up, along with the other employees receiving the raise, to pay for retiree benefits.
Larry Tomblin, who has worked IT for the courts for 16 years, said that after Ugrin-Capobianco took over, the employees got the impression “that the axe would fall fairly soon.” She took over two years ago, and in the past two-and-a-half years, 17 employees have been let go or voluntarily retired, he said. No replacements were found. He noted in the two years, there have been 12 furlough days with more suspected to come.
With a deficit of $275,000, he said, a cut of the assistant court executive officer would save the court between $160,000 and $180,000, more than half of what the court is trying to save. “Why do we have two CEOs, yet we pay? Why?” Tomblin asked. “It is unfair. It’s all unfair.”
Both Tomblin and Tuttle believed that answer is in the new proposed courthouse, planned to be built near the county jail. Although Ugrin-Cabobianco could go to the state and request more money, Tuttle said, it’s likely that she fears the fund to build the new courthouse will be affected. It is meant to be her “legacy,” Tuttle said, and she does not want it to be adversely affected.
In the meantime, the group marched around the courthouse, one employee yelling, “What do we want?” with a response from the rest of “Chop at the top.” The answer of “When?” was “Now,” which, if anything is to be done before the May 18 imposition of the offer, is when something will need to happen.