The Hays City Commission is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to opt out of the Public Employer-Employee Relations Act, a move that would effectively end the city’s negotiations with its three employee labor unions.
The discussion was requested by Commissioner Lance Jones, who said he favors opting out. He said only 12 cities in the state of Kansas currently are covered by PEERA.
“The city does have a wage and benefits committee that represents all employees. They give staff general direction that employees want to see in regards to wages and benefits ... which is primarily what the unions are seeking,” Jones said, noting he also believes the city values all of its employees.
The city currently negotiates with three labor unions, representing service, police and fire department employees.
On average, labor negotiations cost the city approximately $20,000 per year. That amount increases if the city reaches an impasse with the unions, meaning they can’t agree on contract terms. In those cases, an outside mediator is brought in to assist, and the next step would be fact-finding if the mediation fails to resolve the conflict.
“The more meetings, the more costly it becomes for the city,” said Assistant city manager Jacob Wood.
Assistant city attorney Todd Powell said the city has reached an impasse with its bargaining units two of the last three years. In one of those cases, the proceedings did reach the fact-finding process.
Ultimately, the city commission has final authority regarding compensation and benefits.
If the city votes to end its involvement in PEERA, employees still would have the option to join labor unions and attend chapter meetings, as the unions are independent entities. But the city no longer would negotiate with those unions in setting the yearly budget.
The law is mandatory for state government, but cities and counties can elect whether to come under PEERA provisions. The city of Hays joined PEERA in 1972.
If the city votes to withdraw from the coverage, the move would not be effective until the end of the 2018 budget year. The vote would be effective with a simple majority vote of at least three commissioners.
Commissioner Sandy Jacobs said she wants to study the issue further, but agreed she believes the city treats its employees well. She said she is trying to understand why the unions are needed.
“As long as I’ve lived in the city, one of the things that we’ve been extremely proud of is the great wages and benefit packages we have for the employees here, and that is proven by the long-term employees that we have in place,” Jacobs said.
Vice-mayor James Meier did not offer an opinion, but said he would rather not revisit the issue at a future work session.
“I think we have some great employees. … Everywhere you go, you talk to them and I don’t care what department, they’re very positive, energetic, you can see by the work they do,” Mayor Shaun Musil said. “That I, 100-percent, agree. I’ll just be honest with you guys. On this here, I don’t see the big problem.”
Musil said he had been warned the city could face backlash for discussing the issue, but said Thursday he had not yet received feedback either in favor of or against PEERA.
A total of 113 city employees are eligible for union membership, and approximately half are actively involved in a bargaining unit.
“I also think that dealing with certain groups of employees leaves an impression that we deal with some groups and not others,” Jones said. “The city is a very good employer, in my opinion. The staff wage and benefits committee tries to do what’s best for the employees, they try to build a good team. And that’s what the city employees are is one big team.”
The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at city hall. It has been rescheduled from Thursday due to the Thanksgiving holiday.