MADISON, Wis. — A Wisconsin appeals court ruling has made it a little tougher to deny union rights to jail workers, although 11 other counties are taking a different route to remove jailers from their bargaining units.
The 4th District Court of Appeals in Madison ruled Friday the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission and Douglas County were wrong to declare 36 jail workers ineligible for full union membership because they don't all have arrest powers.
The appeals court said state laws are precise in defining which occupations are public safety jobs exempt from the ban on collective bargaining for general public sector employees, and the Douglas jailers are clearly deputies with protective status, according to the Wisconsin State Journal (http://bit.ly/18FuUBj).
The jailers say their jobs are hazardous and they protect the public, so they should qualify for union membership as public safety workers under the law.
In 2011, the state all but stripped public employees of union rights, except for public safety personnel.
Phillip Andrews is a lawyer working with 11 other counties going through the state retirement system to remove the jailers' "protective occupation" status, Andrews said. He said jailers have been incorrectly labeled for years, and since the collective bargaining law was passed in 2011, counties who bargain with them are doing so illegally.
Douglas County didn't take the step to remove that status, Andrews said.
In the other counties, the fight between jailers and administrators is being fought both at the state employment relations commission and the state Department of Employee Trust Funds, which administers the pension system.
Next month, the commission will decide whether to formally separate 124 reclassified jailers in Bayfield, Chippewa, Clark, Green Lake and Ozaukee counties from the unionized bargaining units for sheriff department law enforcement officers, said Peter Davis, general counsel for the commission.
They will be the first five counties to take the final step in removing jailers from their unions, Davis said.
Those counties and others have filed papers with the pension agency to reclassify jail employees as general employees, taking away their protective occupation status, which allows certain improvements in pension benefits. And without the status, the employees are not exempt from the 2011 laws removing collective bargaining rights.
About 90 jail employees from Bayfield, Chippewa, Clark, Marquette and Ozaukee counties have appealed, said state Department of Employee Trust Funds general counsel David Nispel.
The agency could take 18 months or more to decide the cases, Nispel said.