A head-spinning 2020 offered insights going forward

Labor Relations Report

Speaking only for myself, December couldn’t come fast enough. This has been a unique year that’s included a medical, social and political conflagration that has never been experienced before. For much of the year, PBA members were routinely exposed to a deadly virus that also risked the lives of their families. I am so proud to be associated with the women and men in law enforcement, healthcare, education, and all the other essential employees who bravely went to work to take care of everyone.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, we were bombarded with nationwide calls for police reform, with a backdrop of a contentious national election that also fueled the inferno. NJSPBA members can take pride in the fact that most of the proposed reforms that are being discussed have been the standard operating procedure in New Jersey for many years. But we must not lose sight of the fact that we are here to serve the public in a law enforcement capacity. The concerns of the public cannot be dismissed by claiming they do not understand what it takes to do this job. It is now our responsibility to acknowledge our shortcomings and failures, and to demonstrate a professionalism that eliminates those negatives and accentuates the positives.

The events of this year raged partially because many people were bunkered at home with a need for an outlet. Many were at a loss for how they should handle the new abundance of time they normally spent at work.

On the pleasant side, creativity in the form of memes that spread some humor were a welcome distraction. One of my personal favorites was a scene from the 1980s film “Back to the Future,” with Doc Brown telling Marty, “Rule number one — don’t enter 2020.” The single image that was seen more than any other was of the late Barry Wood. You may not know his name or anything about him, but you know his face and he will undoubtedly be an enduring symbol of 2020. On the unpleasant side, this office fielded more questions about grievances and unfair labor practices than ever before.

In the spring, police agencies were struggling with how to safely continue providing services. Most administrators understood that failing to adapt to the threat of the spread of the virus through a squad of officers would hamper the availability of the
department. Policy changes were desperately needed to cover a variety of subjects, most notably PPE, non-essential personnel work locations, police response to calls for service, traffic enforcement, and work schedules of essential personnel. Some
administrators decided to do nothing until they were convinced that officer safety was a necessary element of protecting the public. It is also considered mandatorily negotiable.

Often, the PBA was involved in the discussions or advised of the proposed policies that the chiefs were intent on implementing. Policies considered to be managerial prerogatives that are enacted in this manner are normally the most useful because
they involve input from stakeholders. The PBA is able to provide buy-in of the membership because they can take partial ownership of the development of the policy. The reasoning behind the policy and the expectations are understood by all. Policies that are not clearly management rights, because they involve the terms and conditions of employment, are mandatorily negotiable, so the PBA must be involved in the discussion.

There were so many unknown variables in the beginning of the pandemic that it was understandable that some departments reacted to the emergency without regard for the Collective Negotiations Agreements. But what is incomprehensible is the departments that were advised of violations of contract policies that they implemented continuing to push their position, claiming that the declared state of emergency superseded the Agreement. There were several egregious examples of this, most notably that of a County Sheriff’s PBA President being forced to grieve a written reprimand that disciplined him for a violation of a directive that prohibited the distribution of written directives to anyone who was not a member of the Sheriff’s Office without approval. The President was charged with sharing the directive with the Local’s attorney. The President admitted that he frequently sent policies to their attorney for review and advice. According to Frank Crivelli, Esq., the grievance was settled at Step Two, when the County’s Attorney reduced the penalty to an oral reprimand and made a strong recommendation to the parties
that “a blanket approval be approved for purposes of facilitation of communication and input by Union counsel.”

Another Sheriff’s Office issued a policy that required a 14-day quarantine after returning from a state listed in the Governor’s Travel Advisory. The time of the quarantine would be deducted from the officer’s allotted sick time. Initially, there were no exceptions until the PBA stated objections to the unilateral policy change. The Sheriff responded by making the quarantine “voluntary,” but if an officer chose to come to work, he or she would have to adhere to stringent rules that were reminiscent of my junior high in-school suspensions. Assigned seats, no talking, staring straight ahead, being limited to one bottle of water for the day and permission to use the bathroom were all noted as part of the work assignment for not volunteering to utilize sick time. In response, the PBA filed an Unfair Labor Practice through their attorney, Jim Katz. Prior to the hearing at PERC, the County rescinded the policy altogether.

A similar policy was issued by a municipal department (without the punishment post) and the PBA filed a ULP through their attorney. It went to a hearing, where the attorney representing the Township boldly claimed that he had been attempting to negotiate with the PBA. That claim was roundly disputed by the PBA, but subsequent negotiations yielded an acceptable agreement that balanced the needs of the department and the rights of the Union.

In the words of Crivelli, “Everyone knows that unilateral changes cannot take place as it pertains to a settled contract; however, many often forget that the same premise applies to policy. All too often we get complaints and grievances to review
about unilateral policy changes that took place a year or two ago and there is no negotiation or notification to the union of the change. At that time, it is often too late if the policy is implemented and has been followed.”