Lawrence leaders to settle impasse in negotiations between city and unionized employees, including issue related to cleanup at homeless camps

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on Jan. 31, 2023.

The Lawrence City Commission will have the final say this week in contract negotiations between the city and a group of unionized city employees that have stalled due to issues with three provisions, one of which concerns cleanup at homeless camps.

As the Journal-World reported, the city earlier this month announced an impasse in negotiations with a bargaining unit including central maintenance, engineering, technician, building maintenance and parks field employees. That group filed a petition to unionize under Teamsters Local 696 last year. Lawrence leaders will make a decision to resolve the impasse at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting.

When the city announced the process for resolving the impasse via a public hearing, it described the disagreements more generally as related to additional compensation and the contract grievance resolution process. The agenda for Tuesday’s meeting includes a report from fact-finder Danny Trent that details the issues still on the table more specifically.

Beyond the issue of campsite cleanup, the parties have yet to reach an agreement for grievances affecting multiple employees and expectations for work and pay during an emergency facility closure.

Along with the fact-finding report, the City Commission will hear a presentation from both the city and Teamsters regarding their final proposals for each of the issues.

Campsite cleanup

Per the report, the city argues that campsite cleanup is “by no means unique and there should not be created a stigma for performing this work for one group within our community over another.” The union, having previously made an initial demand of double time pay for campsite cleanup, compromised and asked for one hour of compensatory time in addition to each hour worked. The report also notes that the union’s request for a police presence during campsite cleanup was rejected, and the city would not commit to assuring that a campsite be vacated prior to beginning cleanup.

The city’s proposed language for this provision indicates that the city “will provide training and personal protective equipment for employees whose job duties include cleaning campsites, including training related to biological hazards,” but Trent’s report states that city staff when asked whether training had already been provided would only commit to that “it is in process.”

“Absent better assurances that workers will not be in direct conflict with people in the campsites when clearing those sites, it is unpersuasive to argue that their duties are ‘…by no means unique,'” the report reads. “This statement is disproved by the training that will be required to keep the employees safe, but has not yet been fully provided.”

Trent says in his recommendation that he does not necessarily endorse additional compensation unless this type of duty is made optional, though “all indications” point to the work being qualitatively different from the normal daily duties of parks and recreation workers that may merit at least a different pay scale for these specific duties.

As the Journal-World has reported, city staff last month detailed a process for clearing out unsanctioned homeless camps around the city, starting with outreach and assistance efforts by city staff to help people relocate. The city then launched an online form to report new homeless campsites.

Grievance policy

Per the fact-finding report, both parties tentatively agreed to the city’s proposed grievance policy, in which both individual and disciplinary disputes and group and contractural disputes were to be decided by the city manager, but the union changed its position due to “unacceptable outcomes” of that process with two employee groups. In June, the union filed a petition against the city in Douglas County District Court that, in part, outlines issues related to the grievance process.

The city wants to maintain the existing grievance procedure, where a complaint is considered by a department director and then by the city manager if necessary, then the parties can modify or clarify their agreement based on the city manager’s review and determination. The Teamsters’ proposal adds a third step at the end of that process, in which the parties submit to binding arbitration by a third-party mediator.

Trent is recommending the parties negotiate further on a form of arbitration that will address the concerns of both parties and streamline the process, limit the cost and authority of the arbitrator, and provide some sort of limited ability to appeal a dispute.

Emergency closure pay

While the report notes that the city updated emergency closure pay during COVID-19 closures with union input and in 2021 implemented a new market-competitive pay plan, the union argues that additional compensation beyond that is common for emergency workers since the city determines who is an “essential worker.”

Trent writes in his recommendation that the union’s position “does not appear persuasive” on balance, since the union didn’t present evidence of hazardous duty and other evidence presented showed that emergency closures are rare.

In other business, commissioners will:

• Consider adopting Ordinance No. 10005 establishing a Neighborhood Revitalization Area at 1000 New Hampshire St., and authorizing City Manager Craig Owens to execute a cooperative agreement between the city, Douglas County and the Lawrence school district on NRA administration and a performance agreement with the incentive recipient.

The ordinance concerns a development incentives package for Lawrence developer Tony Krsnich’s proposed affordable housing project for seniors, New Hampshire Street Lofts. The City Commission already voted unanimously to approve Krsnich’s requests to establish a Neighborhood Revitalization Area and use Industrial Revenue Bond financing for a sales tax exemption on construction materials back in September, and the Douglas County Commission and Lawrence school board have both since followed suit.

• Receive a report detailing recommendations from the city’s Board and Commissions Structure Committee and direct staff accordingly.

That committee finalized its recommendations last month, about a year after Lawrence leaders started the process of consolidating the city’s 45 volunteer boards and commissions to a group of 10 or less. After receiving feedback from commissioners, city staff will begin working on a transition plan for the city’s existing boards and commissions.

• During a work session, receive a presentation about the city’s asset management strategy.

The Lawrence City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.


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