MADISON -- Douglas County jailers have retained the right to unionize and collectively bargain for wages and working conditions, according to a recent state appeals court decision.
The District 4 Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a Dane County circuit judge who had reversed a ruling by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. The commission found the jailers weren't "public safety employees" and their rights to collective bargaining had been reduced by Act 10 legislation, which preserved full collective bargaining rights for certain police and fire employees only.
The jailers' suit began after Douglas County petitioned WERC in 2011 to determine if the county's 36 jailers were deputy sheriffs and "public safety employees," which retained the authority to bargain for wages and working conditions.
WERC subsequently found jailers aren't considered "protective occupation participants" as they don't meet the definition of a deputy sheriff.
The jailers, represented by the Local 441A of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, appealed and last year Dane County Circuit Judge John Neiss found statutes dictate that jailers are deputy sheriffs and consequently public safety employees with broader collective bargaining rights.
WERC and the county appealed arguing that the jailers weren't protective occupation participants because they didn't have arrest powers.
However, the District 4 Court disagreed. It noted that since at least 2003, the county determined jailers' principal duties involved active law enforcement, which also fit the definition of a protective occupation participant by high degree of danger or peril they face on the job.
There is no additional requirement to determine if an public safety employee is considered a deputy sheriff if they are a sheriff's department employee whose primary duties are not those of a telephone operator, clerk, stenographer mechanic.
"Obviously, the jailers in this case are sheriff's office employees, and they do not have a job that falls into one of the excepted categories," according to the 16-page appeals opinion.
Although the jailers lack the power to arrest, Act 10 granted broader collective bargaining rights only to public safety employees and by the plain language of the law, jailers are public safety employee, according to the opinion.
County Administrator Andy Lisak said he was "disappointed" with the decision and will ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court to hear the case, whether or not WERC does, too.
Lisak didn't know how much the county had saved by having the WERC reclassify jailers as municipal employees but said the savings the county accrued from employee contributing more to the health insurance and pension had been eliminated by reductions in state aid.
Lisak said he hadn't heard any negative feedback about the jailers not being able to bargain for working conditions.
"We all had to get used to the new law (Act 10) and there was lots of uncertainty and anxiety but we've made a commitment to treat all employees with respect and that hasn't changed," he said.
Sheriff Thomas Dalbec didn't return a phone call for comment on jail working conditions before deadline.
James Palmer II, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, was "very gratified" by the decision but said it wouldn't apply to other counties that had reclassified their jailers as general municipal employees because the Douglas County suit only involved the question of whether jailers are considered deputy sheriffs for purposes of collective bargaining.
Because jailers work in a hostile environment, being able to bargain for working conditions is important to them, Palmer said.
"Issues of adequate staffing levels, video monitoring, (frequency) of facility inspection and appropriate equipment are vital for they are not left exposed to threats or attacks.
"Rank-and-file jailers are in the best position to share those concerns to ensure they all have a safe and protected environment in which to work," said Palmer.