Hennepin County sheriff’s deputies hope to use a recent arbitration ruling to change a restrictive tattoo policy that they claim turns away potential hires.
Nearly three years ago, Sheriff Rich Stanek notified the union representing the office’s 246 deputies that anybody with a tattoo would have to cover it up. The policy also applied to the office’s 600 other sworn and civilian employees, as well as to 100 volunteer special deputies.
Arbitrator James A. Lundberg ruled last week that the Sheriff’s Office violated the collective bargaining agreement when it did not meet with union officials to discuss the policy change. He also reinstated the policy’s previous grandfather clause, which exempted employees with tattoos hired before Sept. 1, 2010, from having to cover them up.
Lundberg ordered “the parties [to] meet and confer over the new policy,” which the union hopes will lead to a loosened tattoo policy. Stanek’s office didn’t comment Thursday on the ruling.
“The ruling is important because it reinforces the union’s right to sit down and guide policy,” said Tim Chmielewski, president of the Hennepin County Deputies Association. “When we go back to the table, we want to voice our concerns the policy might have on future hiring.”
Under the old — now reinstated — policy, deputies who are not grandfathered in can’t have visible tattoos more than 2 inches below a short-sleeve uniform shirtsleeve or above the collar line. An exception can be made for undercover assignments where a tattoo might be of value, said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jon Collins. Anyone violating the policy could be disciplined.
Tattoo policies have been a frequent discussion in law enforcement for many years. Chmielewski and Mark J. Schneider, who represented the union, said they don’t know of any other local law enforcement agencies with a similarly restrictive tattoo policy.
With the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies struggling to fill vacancies, Chmielewski is concerned that the office’s restrictive policy could immediately eliminate a person with a small neck or a lower-arm tattoo. He’s also worried the policy would hurt minority and military veteran applicants, who are a hiring priority for the office.
“Tattoos are very common these days,” he said. “We want to relay the importance of the policy to the sheriff or his representatives, and this gives us a great opportunity.”
Another problem with the tattoo policy is that is forces deputies to wear long-sleeved clothing during hot weather. The Sheriff’s Office often works a downtown Minneapolis summer beat with Minneapolis and Metro Transit officers, who are allowed to wear shorts on hot days.
The union filed a grievance shortly after the policy change in 2015. The arbitration hearing was conducted in January.
The arbitration ruling said that the union had argued that the new policy was arbitrary and capricious. The stated purpose by the Sheriff’s Office for the policy was to “remediate possible or believed offense” that may be taken by the public to tattoos and to create uniformity in the workplace.
However, the union argued, the Sheriff’s Office submitted no evidence that members of the public “are or have been offended” by a tattoo. For its part, the Sheriff’s Office had argued that until the tattoo policy change, no union member had sought a grievance over any of the numerous appearance policy changes instituted over the past five years.
Schneider said he isn’t clear on why the Sheriff’s Office declined to discuss the policy with the deputies’ union. He said he suspects that the county advised the office that it was OK to change the policy and didn’t need to negotiate.