By Mark Toor

June 7, 2011 - The Westchester County Department of Correction must come up with a better system for ensuring that Correction Officers can take their time off, an arbitrator ruled last month.

The May 12 ruling by Dennis J. Campagna came in the case of Patrick Garrett, a member of the Westchester Correction Officers Benevolent Association who requested a day off during Memorial Day weekend in 2009. A Captain denied his request, noting that outside of those on vacation for the entire week, only one Correction Officer was allowed to take the day off and someone else had already signed up.

New Rule on Vacation Leave
The union charged that the county had violated the contract, which allows at least 8.33 percent of a unit’s workforce to take off at the same time. The contract calls for this rule to be followed in the case of personal leave or supplemental time off, said Mercedes Maldonado of Koehler and Isaacs, who represented the union. However, she said, it does not cover holiday or vacation leave.

“Correction work is one of the most stressful jobs out there,” Alonzo West, president of WCOBA, said in an interview. “People need their time off so they can come to work with a clear head and have some kind of normality in their lives.”

“You had people who couldn’t use their time under a contract that said time off was guaranteed if you had it,” he said. “We gave up things years ago to get these provisions in the contract.”

Until recently, Ms. Maldonado said, the county had followed the 8.33-percent rule for holiday and vacation leave, but then instituted its one-at-a-time rule for such leave. “This reduced the opportunity to take time off,” she said an interview. Under its own guidelines, the county could have had nine COs off, and when Mr. Garrett asked for a day it had only six taking off.

The union reasoned that because the contract required that holiday time be used before the end of the next calendar quarter, the county was obligated to make all efforts to allow an employee to use that time.

The county responded that staffing was a management prerogative and that no one would lose a day off, since COs who do not use their accrued time by the end of the quarter are paid for it in cash.

Must Make ‘Reasonable Efforts’
The arbitrator agreed with the union’s contention that the county must do everything it can to ensure that COs can use their time off. Mr. Campagna also found that “there is no logical reason” why the county should deny a CO’s request for the day off when the maximum number allowed off had not been reached.

The decision ordered the county to stop denying days off when that maximum was not reached, and to make “reasonable efforts” to ensure holidays or time off outside of a full week could be taken.

“It balances the interests involved,” Ms. Maldonado said, meaning both the county’s desire not to go below minimum staffing and the union’s desire that members can take time off.

“We’re still reviewing the decision and drafting a memorandum as to how it would be implemented,” said Justin Pine of the Westchester Department of Correction.

Mr. West said the time-off dispute was further evidence that the Correction Department “doesn’t want to honor the collective-bargaining agreement. What they can’t take away in contract negotiations, they try to litigate away or legislate away.”