Orange County hammers out union agreement

Orange County, TX


Orange County Commissioners have been discussing the county budget in a series of workshops over the last two weeks. Commissioners and staff are going over the budget with a fine-tooth comb to try to minimize expenses. In their latest meeting Wednesday, June 26, commissioners discussed pending negotiations with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Employee Union.

“This will be quite different than normal workshops,” Judge Carl Thibodeaux said at the beginning of the meeting. “There will be no participation from the audience. This is not a negotiation session. … Sorry to have to do it that way, but this is not a public hearing.”

Thibodeaux said audience members should only respond to questions from commissioners.

Sheriff Keith Merritt was on-hand to answer and discuss any items necessary while commissioners looked over potential changes to be made from the old contract to the new contract effective Oct. 1. The old contract initiated Oct. 1, 2009, expires Sept. 30 of this year.

Many of the proposed alterations were minor administrative changes, but commissioners did express concerns regarding holiday pay, sick leave and overtime pay for staff at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and Correctional Facility.

“We have a real hard time staying within our overtime budget,” Merritt said while explaining the shift work and holiday pay for employees in addition to pay raises. “The overtime budget in the last two years has stayed the same, and with salary increases it’s hard to maintain that same amount.”

“Those will be looked at,” Thibodeaux answered. “That’s a good point.”

Employees are given 96 hours of sick leave per year, and if they use no more than 12 hours, they can bank half the time for later use and cash in the other half as a one-time yearly option, the contract read. According to the sick leave policy in section 14.2 of the contract, employees can cash in up to 480 hours of sick leave when leaving employment.

“I’m going to go on record and say right now, it is getting too expensive,” Thibodeaux said in regard to cashing out large amounts of accrued sick leave. “That’s the problem. Now, we can either try to control expenses or we can reduce workforce. We are trying to control it and keep our workforce.”

Merritt said that is why he was bringing certain items to light so commissioners can negotiate with the union and have the details to make informed decisions.

“Our goal is to protect the employment we have,” Thibodeaux reiterated. “We want to keep them.”

“Yes, sir,” Merritt said in acknowledgement.

Thibodeaux said there has to be a cap on the sick leave pay, or at least that is something to for them to address during negotiations. He said there is an advantage to the policy because people are less likely to feel they must use sick time or lose it.

“The purpose of this was to encourage everybody not to take sick leave, and it does help,” Thibodeaux said. “It reduces overtime. … So there is an advantage to it also. We have to look at both sides. It will be addressed.”

Thibodeaux said he wanted two members chosen from commissioners court to participate in the pending negotiations with the union privately, and indicated that would be discussed at a later date.

“I am very uncomfortable negotiating with a full court,” Thibodeaux explained. “I’ve been through negotiations for 19 years. I know how they go… Everybody goes out when it’s all over, you walk out of the room and you go get a cup of coffee or a Coke or whatever. But during the course of negotiations, they get serious and harsh words are spoken. I’ve spoken them, and they’ve been spoken to me. That’s part of it. You don’t take it personally. If it gets out publicly, it becomes personal. Trust me.”

He said he will recommend closed sessions for union negotiation discussions.