Public employees in Baltimore County will have a new avenue for resolving labor disputes under legislation the County Council approved Monday.
The measure will grant binding arbitration — a practice in which an independent, third-party arbiter makes decisions in a labor impasse — to more than 2,500 general county workers, including corrections officers, public health nurses and 911 dispatchers.
The county's police and firefighters have been able to use binding arbitration for nearly a decade. Last year, county voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to extend binding arbitration rights to other employees.
Labor leaders had said that County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's bill to authorize the referendum was too restrictive, but a union official said Monday he was pleased with changes the council approved.
The unanimously approved legislation will take effect in 2014 and limit the use of binding arbitration to disputes about salary and pensions. Officials from Kamenetz's administration have said it would be irresponsible to let an arbiter decide on employment conditions such as staffing levels.
The unions had said that Kamenetz's legislation did not reflect the voter-approved referendum question, which specified that the employees could also use binding arbitration in disputes about employment conditions, as police and firefighters in the county can.
The measure to extend binding arbitration to general employees was "the first of its kind in the state," said John Ripley, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees. "Now it's time to move on."
Ripley praised the council for approving amendments offered by Councilwoman Vicki Almond and Councilman David Marks.
One amendment would make the arbiter consider wages and pensions of workers in jurisdictions similar to Baltimore County. In the original legislation, the arbiter could consider only areas contiguous to the county.
The council also approved an amendment that Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. offered to clarify that employees can use non-binding arbitration for disputes about terms and conditions of employment.
"My hope is that we never have to use binding arbitration," Olszewski said, adding that in labor disputes, it is best to find an "amicable solution that works for both sides."
Also Monday, the council unanimously approved an early retirement incentive package. Kamenetz proposed the buyouts last month in hopes of eliminating about 200 positions from the county payroll of 8,000.
Under an amendment requested by Kamenetz and approved by council members Monday, public school nurses, bus drivers, grounds workers, building service workers and cafeteria employees are not eligible for the offer.
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