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The Lebanon County Commissioners struck a three-year deal Thursday with the union that represents correctional officers at the county prison. 

The commissioners unanimously approved at their biweekly meeting the new collective bargaining agreement, which is retroactive to Jan. 1 and runs through Dec. 31, 2024.

Highlights of the new agreement, as provided by human resources director Michelle Edris, include wage increases, reductions in insurance co-pays for doctor’s visits and prescriptions, a restructuring of the longevity bonus plan, and an “increase to life insurance coverage to annual salary of up to $50,000 per year with additional article revisions.” 

During discussion before the final vote, Commissioner Chairman Robert Phillips said the commissioners had recently reached an agreement with the union following a vote last Friday by union members to approve the agreement. The new deal bypasses an arbitration hearing that had been scheduled near the end of April.

“Yesterday we were still under the arbitration code of silence, so, you know, we can’t violate that,” said Phillips, when asked when a deal had been made. “Others chose to do that and call us out.”

The deal includes new starting hourly pay rates of: $21 for COs and $25.91 for corporals for 2022 hired after Jan. 1. All others hired prior to Dec. 31, 2021, received a wage increase of $5.09 per hour. 

“With the private first class, which is a stipend that they receive for an upper supervisory position, one step up I should say, it is an additional 65 cents per hour for the length of the contract, and (for) lance corporals it is an additional $1 per hour for the length of the contract – with the contract for 2023 and 2024 being (a) 4 percent increase each year,” said Edris. 

She added that the new contract includes a shift differential of 80 cents per hour for the 4 p.m. to midnight shift and 75 cents per hour for the midnight to 8 a.m. shift.

County administrator Jamie Wolgemuth said the union and county had been close to an agreement last fall, but added a sticking point that delayed the agreement being finalized was overtime. (Edris later noted the only other issue that delayed the agreement was wages.)

“The other pertinent items are the overtime, which has been highlighted and discussed a lot, there’s been a lot of overtime,” said Wolgemuth, who then asked Edris to highlight overtime compensation under the new contract. 

“If an employee is mandated for OT beginning with the third consecutive mandated shift in a seven-day period, the employee shall be paid at double time. New hires under 30 days of employment shall not be mandated for OT. They may, however, volunteer,” read Edris, who later added that the first two days of mandated overtime are compensated at time-and-a-half. “Up to this point, they had been mandated since day one, and that’s what has been exhausting them.”

LebTown had learned of the pending arbitration hearing at the April 7 commissioners meeting when union representative Tara Wilson expressed grave concerns during the public comment period about working conditions at the prison. 

Read More: LCCF union rep raises concerns about critical correctional officer shortage

With an agreement reached, Phillips referenced the prior meeting where the union rep made comments without initially stating she was representing the COs.

“I just want to add my disappointment with Tara Wilson coming in and, first of all, not identifying herself and her position until maybe three-quarters through this thing…,” said Phillips, “which put us at a big disadvantage because we’ve been coached not to violate the labor negotiation process when we’re in arbitration. She knew full well on April 7 that we had a meeting scheduled for 9:30 the next morning. … Yesterday we had a bit of a dust up with someone who was angry and, you know, we’re just trying to follow (the) protocol that we’re given.”

Phiilps added that the county has two other union contracts pending renewal of the five other unions that represent various positions within county government.       

“And the other factor is that we have six unions in the county,” said Phillips. “We have two more negotiations on the horizon. So we want to be consistent in the way that we handle ourselves in that process. So I just wanted to clarify that, air that out a little bit. … I’m glad we have a settlement, obviously.”

Philiips added that county officials knew they were “very close” to an agreement but was unable to express that publicly in response to recent public comments. He also said county officials have to be mindful of taxpayers during negotiations because the “prison is funded 100 percent by county taxes.”

When asked by LebTown if the pay increase puts Lebanon County on par with nearby counties, which have reportedly been poaching county prison employees with higher wages, the answer was “Yes, certainly with other Class 5 counties.” 

Edris said Lebanon is now the highest paying of the seven Class 5 counties in Pennsylvania, which includes Adams, Blair, Lawrence, Lebanon, Lycoming, Mercer and Northumberland. Pennsylvania counties are classified by population size as determined by the U.S. census.

“The market really dictates, you know, what is fair wages for any profession – whether a teacher, a correctional officer, nursing,” said Commissioner Michael J. Kuhn. “That’s what is going to dictate the range for you to be competitive.”

Given the staff shortage that exists at the prison, the county plans to advertise in local media about the pay increases and current county prison staff members can receive a referral bonus for every new officer that is hired. 

“There’s still the problem of just not enough employees out there,” said Wolgemuth. “Yesterday, at the prison board, or maybe it was afterward, I noted a number that I heard from the Chamber of Commerce of 36 percent of people who are eligible to work in Lebanon County are not. So, we’re not drawing from a 100 percent pool, we’re drawing from a 64 percent pool.”

In other county business, the commissioners voted to:

  • Sign a resolution approving tax-exempt status for a renovation/capital improvement project at Cornwall Manor.
  • Approve a grant application for the county’s probation department to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency for the Intermediate Punishment Treatment Grant program for 2022-23. Due Monday, April 25, the final amount of the grant has not yet been determined but is believed to be approximately $236,225. It was noted that Lebanon County can receive the grant without providing matching funds. 
  • Appoint the following individuals to the Commission for Women: Ashley Sellers, Emily Simone, Stacy Schott, Sue Danielewicz, Sarah Kitchen, and Anne Aguilar.
  • Reappoint Leroy Leach to a five-year term on the board of the Redevelopment Authority of the County of Lebanon from 2022-2027 as the assistant treasurer/secretary, and appointed Scott Rights to replace John Bowser on RACL’s board. Bowser’s five-year term expires in 2025.
  • Appoint James Streiff to a three-year term in the optional category to the Lebanon County Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
  • Provide real estate tax exemptions to three disabled veterans.
  • Approve liquid fuel requests to the following local municipalities in the requested amount and stated purpose: Palmyra Borough, $7,320, paving project; West Cornwall Township, $1,976, street sweeping; Jackson Township, $8,163, line painting; and Annville Township, $4,767, general maintenance, roads and equipment.
  • Accept the treasurer’s report and the minutes of the April 7 meeting.   
  • Grant the following hotel tax grant applications:
    • Friends of Old Annville in the amount of $4,500 for Old Annville Day on June 11.
    • Campbelltown Community Alliance in the amount of $2,625 for a beautification project throughout the town.
    • Lebanon Foundation Inc. in the amount of $2,200 to promote three First Friday events in June, July, and August.
    • Pennsylvania Gourd Society in the amount of $4,972 to advertise the Pennsylvania Gourd Festival, scheduled for June 16-18. Commissioners Phillips and Kuhn voted to approve the grant application while Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz voted no, stating the amount requested is excessive when only 275 people attended the event in 2021.

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James Mentzer

James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; and Lancaster...