ST. CLAIRSVILLE - The union workers employed by the senior services division of Belmont County's Department of Job & Family Services are currently involved in a mediated contract negotiation with the Belmont County commissioners.
It's reached this point, partly, because the employees of Senior Services of Belmont County have yet to receive a step increase to their pay that they were promised. Nor have they received a $1 hour raise promised after one year.
According to one former SSBC employee, however, that's only one of a myriad of issues that has been bubbling to the surface recently.
Cheryl Forshey originally was hired as a meal delivery driver through SSBC in April of 2012. She also worked as a floater, performing clerical and fiscal work along with assisting the kitchen staff at Oakview in preparing the roughly 900 meals daily that are delivered by the drivers to seniors throughout Belmont County.
In a letter dated Feb. 10, sent to the Belmont County commissioners, Forshey described how proud she was of the work her fellow coworkers performed daily at SSBC and described in detail the extra lengths they go through to ensure the county's seniors are taken care of.
The delivery drivers don't just drop off meals. They talk with the clients, they've shoveled snow, they've brought in the mail ... one driver, Bev, even helped save the life of a client when she noticed, on her delivery, that something seemed wrong when no one came to the door and made the appropriate phone calls.
That woman's life was saved because an SSBC employee went that extra mile. She feels the kitchen staff and center coordinators display the same dedication as the delivery drivers.
But Forshey also raised some concerns in her letter that she felt she, and many of her fellow coworkers at the time, had with the commissioners and administration at DJFS.
In comparison, the lowest paid hourly employee from JFS that gets compensated through senior levy dollars when shared services is utilized makes $17.91 per hour. The highest, upper levels of management, makes $51.59.
Despite these differences, the employees of SSBC have yet to receive the $1 hour raise they were promised, or the 34 cent step increase they were due in January.
Bittengle makes a little more than $28 per hour and is the highest paid SSBC employee, even more so than Tina Burkhart, the nutrition coordinator who oversees the daily meal preparation, from cooking to delivery to nutritional considerations, as well as the data entry related with such an undertaking.
Forshey also took exception with Bittengle being the highest-paid SSBC employee, while not being housed in the Oakview facility like the other SSBC workers. Bittengle's office is in the JFS building.
Forshey told of what she feels is an "us vs. them" feeling amongst the workers, with SSBC employees on one side and leadership at JFS and the commissioners on the other.
She feels that the mentality is that the employees of SSBC are the "red-headed step child" of the entire organization and are treated as such.
Forshey cited an email circulated by JFS Director Dwayne Pielech, commending a JFS employee for voluntarily taking the time to get Connections and JFS placed on Twitter and Facebook. Yet, no department-wide kudos, she said, are ever extended to SSBC employees.
She believes that a lot of that work can be performed by current SSBC employees. Some, she admits, like the head of transportation who is instrumental in taking care of the large fleet of vehicles utilized by SSBC, are needed and necessary.
"We deserve to know what is going on with senior services," Forshey wrote. "Who will be our director? Will we keep or lose our jobs? When will the separation take place?"
Forshey recently resigned her position. However, her questions still remain.
The step increase was due in January. However, the last four months, the commissioners and representatives from AFSCME Council 8 have been in negotiations of the union's contract. During that time, an attorney has been receiving payment through levy dollars.
Pielech noted that he had an hour-long meeting with Forshey and attempted to answer some of her concerns.
"I met with the employee for at least an hour one afternoon and tried to explain the difference in funding sources, levy dollars vs. federal and state dollars, between SSBC and JFS," Pielech said. "As well as having to live within the budget the commissioners provide this agency.
"I tried to explain that we share some employees between the agencies because, at the end of the year, it is financially better to protect levy dollars by sharing the employees, who may be doing work for multiple agencies, as opposed to hiring full time employees with benefits. By sharing, we know we can stretch the levy dollars further."
Coffland believes its less expensive alternative, to occasionally utilize JFS employees as opposed to hiring additional full-time SSBC staff, saving in salary and benefits costs over the long term.
A case manager, making for example around $8 per hour back in the mid 80's, would make a substantially higher amount now.
Because it was an internal transfer, Bittengle's contract and pay rate was unable to be modified. If she had been hired in from outside JFS, her pay would be different.
Now, with Pielech's resignation, the commissioners will be looking to hire a new, overall director, as well as one for senior services, should the impending changeover and separation go through.
"I am against the changeover," Coffland said. "I've yet to see any numbers that it can be done any cheaper or better than the job that's currently being done by JFS."
Attempts to reach fellow commissioners Ginny Favede and Chuck Probst were unsuccessful.
Hughes may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org