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Lawrence City Commission hears issues at impasse between city and union, offers direction

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Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday leaned more toward siding with the city in an ongoing impasse with one of the employee unions, but they agreed to some compromises.

Teamsters Local 696 represents Group 6, which includes some city staff members working in the municipal services and parks and recreation departments. The city and union were unable to reach an agreement on three issues before the end of their contract negotiation period, so the city commission had to advise on three points where the parties had reached impasse.

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The union wanted a third party to handle binding arbitration when there were group grievances. They also wanted extra compensation for essential workers who do their jobs even when the city has deemed it unsafe to work, and additional time off for workers who complete work outside of their normal duties, such as doing cleanups of areas where people have been living outside.

After roughly an hour of discussion and weighing different options for arbitration, Teamsters Local 696 Secretary-Treasurer Matt Hall told commissioners that the union had suggested a resolution in which the dispute would come back before the Lawrence City Commission, but he said the city would not agree to that. Assistant City Attorney Zach Fridell said the city had discussed an option by which the commission could address policy going forward, and make policy changes that could be applied retroactively.

Attorney Michael Amash, representing the Teamsters, said a grievance is an interpretation of the contract, not a change in policy, and the union believes it is imperative to introduce a neutral party to make a nonbinding ruling to bring to the commission for a binding decision.

Attorney Michael Amash, representing Teamsters Local 696, speaks to Lawrence city commissioners on Nov. 21, 2023. (Screenshot / City of Lawrence YouTube)

City Manager Craig Owens said if the commission received a third party’s report with which he had disagreed, the commissioners — his bosses — would direct him on how to proceed.

A majority of commissioners agreed to have a third party or fact-finder hear evidence in disputes. The cost for that would be shared between the city and the union. The fact-finder would submit a written advisory to the city manager, who would then issue a final decision. Then, if the city and union agree a change is needed in the MOU, they can work that out. If the union is not satisfied with the city manager’s decision, the city commission could review a confidential report and order alteration to the policy, which could then be retroactively applied to the case at the heart of the grievance.

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei, Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn and Mayor Lisa Larsen said they would agree with that. Commissioners Amber Sellers and Courtney Shipley had pushed for a binding arbitrator as the union had requested.

The same three commissioners were not in favor of additional pay for employees who show up to work in conditions when the city deems it unsafe to work, such as employees who clear the roads during snow storms.

Shipley said she was “clearly overruled” in making a case for the second item of additional pay in emergency conditions, and she would agree with the union’s request for extra compensation or time off for staff members who help with camp cleanups.

A third party fact-finder has already said the work of cleaning up campsites was “qualitatively different” from the normal duties of the workers. The conversation led commissioners to ask more questions about safety protocols in place for employees helping with such cleanups.

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Mark Hecker, assistant director of parks, told commissioners that if staff members ask for protective equipment, the city will provide it. Larsen said that concerned her, and that the city should be telling employees what protective equipment they need to wear to do the work — not waiting for employees to ask for it.

Hecker said city staff members have been stuck by hypodermic needles — for instance, needles that couldn’t be seen inside trash bags — and required emergency medical attention.

Sellers said she has helped with some camp cleanups, and she can’t do them. There’s trauma involved for people who are doing the cleanup and for the people who are losing their things, she said. In her view, the city should not be trying to “backdoor (employees) into it” by saying camp cleanups were part of their normal duties.

Shipley said she thought if camp cleanups were in job descriptions, the city would learn quickly that they would need to raise salaries to get people to do that job.

Finkeldei said he thinks the city should add camp cleanup to job descriptions and work to improve safety conditions.

Commissioners ultimately agreed that employees should get some sort of specialty pay or additional compensation in some form for dealing with campsite cleanups.

City management and the union will go back to the bargaining table to finalize the details.

Commissioners did not have to take a formal vote on any of the items. The union will have to vote on whether to ratify the final memorandum of understanding with the city, which will then come back to the Lawrence City Commission for final approval.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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