City Commission issues recommendations for settling dispute between city and unionized employee group

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

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

After working late into Tuesday night to find a resolution for an impasse in contract negotiations between the city and a group of unionized employees, the Lawrence City Commission settled on recommendations for provisions on cleanup at homeless camps and two other issues.

Commissioners didn’t take an official vote on their recommendations for the homeless camp conflict or the other two disagreements, related to grievances affecting multiple employees and expectations for work and pay during an emergency facility closure, but they did manage to reach a consensus among a majority of commissioners for each individual issue. Mayor Lisa Larsen asked for city staff to bring the contract back for a final decision once city staff and the unionized employees, who are one of a few employee groups to have unionized under Teamsters Local 696, have had an opportunity to return to the bargaining table with city leaders’ recommendations in mind.

The homeless camp cleanup provision was the one issue that ultimately saw all five commissioners express an interest in the same recommendation — that the city should consider offering some form of additional compensation to employees asked to assist with cleanup at unsanctioned homeless camps. The city had previously argued that such work is “by no means unique” and thus shouldn’t require additional pay.

In terms of the issue related to grievances affecting multiple employees, a majority of commissioners decided on a process that adds a step to the existing grievance process, in which City Manager Craig Owens makes the final determination in any grievance. The new step, which would be initiated in the event that the employee group isn’t satisfied with that final decision, would see the parties work together to bring in a third-party fact-finder to conduct a hearing and submit a written advisory decision to both parties and Owens. The final decision would again be made by the city manager after that process plays out.

Only three commissioners were on board with that plan. Commissioners Courtney Shipley and Amber Sellers instead expressed interest in that process being resolved via binding arbitration — where a third party makes a final, legally binding decision on behalf of both parties.

The issue regarding emergency facility closures saw a similar split, with the same groups of commissioners for and against the idea of offering any additional compensation for this group of employees — mostly from the Parks and Recreation and Municipal Service and Operations departments — in the event of severe weather closures. Ultimately, the majority group opted against recommending there be any additional compensation on the table.

Shipley and Sellers both said they saw a need to look at the city’s policy for emergency closures more broadly, though, while Commissioner Brad Finkeldei noted that if duties like clearing snow or salting the roads during inclement weather are included in a job description, then they don’t necessitate additional compensation.

From here, the two parties will work to finalize a memorandum of understanding, with an effective date of Jan. 1, 2024, that will return to the City Commission for approval at a future meeting prior to the end of the year.


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