City layoffs: Workers' union fights back

Posted: Friday, March 03, 2000

City workers facing wholesale layoffs threw a counterpunch today by filing a class action grievance against the city.

Juneau Department of Health and Social Services personnel filed the action through the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, the union that represents them.

The move covers all the employees in the department, said MEBA business agent Greg O'Claray.

``It forces the city to negotiate as to the effects of their decision on the size of the department work force and the tasks assigned to them,'' he said. ``What we're saying is: You need to talk to us.''

The management decision in question was made last week when City Manager Dave Palmer announced the city would farm out its mental health services to private and nonprofit agencies around the city, a move that would cost at least 40 of the department's employees their jobs.

Responding this morning to the union call for discussion, Palmer said, ``We're happy to do it. Management has the right to decide what services we provide and the staff has the right to negotiate how that plays out.''

At a noon meeting Thursday of department personnel, 34 staff became ``energized by the prospect of presenting their case to the assembly Monday night,'' O'Claray said.

Assembly Finance Committee Chairman Dwight Perkins, who attended the Thursday meeting, asked the gathering for a list of questions about the city decision by noon today. Perkins pledged to have answers at Monday's assembly meeting, O'Claray said.

``The first question we're asking is: Why did the Finance Committee meet in secret to discuss this in the first place?'' he said.

Perkins said today he would submit the list to the city manager and expect the answers Monday.

``Perkins said he was looking to do what's in the best interests of the clients, patients, staff and the community,'' said Jon Faine, a Health and Social Services Department emergency services clinician.

Department staff have been doing a number of things to help put the city move in proper perspective, he said.

``I'm doing everything, including calling members of the assembly, writing the mayor, investigating the budget. I'm even looking at the philosophy statement of the city with regard to the department,'' Faine said.

Some answers were already forthcoming this morning. With respect to union members' earlier concerns about the lack of a timetable for layoffs, Palmer said: ``The earliest that anything could happen for the mental health side is four months, more likely between four and seven months.''

The transfer to Bartlett Regional Hospital of the Juneau Recovery Unit, the city's drug and alcohol treatment center, would take longer because of the hospital's ongoing accreditation process, Palmer said.

The manager's office has scheduled a meeting for 7 p.m. Wednesday in assembly chambers among state officials, the nonprofit mental health service providers expected to assume the city department's case load, and Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce.

``The meeting will be to answer questions and hear suggestions about the transition,'' Pierce said.

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