The State Worker

California Public Employment Relations Board fights case backlog

California firefighters wait 5 years for labor rulings

Lobbyist Christy Bouma explains to lawmakers on May 21, 2015 that local firefighters -- members of California Professional Firefighters -- wait years for their labor complaints to receive rulings from the Public Employment Relations Board. Court
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Lobbyist Christy Bouma explains to lawmakers on May 21, 2015 that local firefighters -- members of California Professional Firefighters -- wait years for their labor complaints to receive rulings from the Public Employment Relations Board. Court

The board that referees government employees’ contract disputes has a backlog so serious that Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget for next year proposes adding staff at a cost of nearly $1 million.

The quasi-judicial Public Employment Relations Board’s queue of labor cases that need resolution backs up to 2011 in some instances, according to labor leaders who have complained publicly. Brown’s proposal to add five PERB positions for $885,000 in fiscal year that starts July 1.

A recent report by the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, however, states that the board’s shaky finances may push it to use the budgeted salary money for other things.

The Public Employment Relations Board is a quasi-judicial agency that administers collective-bargaining laws that cover employees in public schools and colleges, state government, local governments and trial court staff.

PERB has relied on keeping an unusually high percentage of its positions vacant so that it can redirect the money – more than $700,000 last year – to pay operating expenses it couldn’t otherwise cover, the analyst found. Adding more money for staff to the agency’s 9 million budget is no guarantee that it will add employees, the report states, despite the obvious need.

Last year, the board kept 9.5 positions vacant of 57 positions allocated in its budget.

“This is an inordinate number of vacant positions relative to what is typical among state departments,” the report states. “These vacancies appear to have been in the adjudication sections of PERB.”

In other words, the PERB jobs left vacant have been those with a role in deciding contract disputes.

2.3 millionThe number of state, local and school employees in California who come under collective bargaining laws administered by PERB.

Furthermore, the board’s jurisdiction since it was established in 1976 has grown from overseeing one collective bargaining law that covered approximately 470,000 state and local government employees to eight statutes that cover approximately 2.3 million employees today. Its staffing has not kept pace, according to the analyst.

The result: Long delays between dispute filings and PERB rulings. In 2009, for example, San Mateo County firefighters filed a charge against the Menlo Park Fire Protection District claiming unfair labor practices and failure to bargain in good faith. PERB issued its ruling in 2014.

And lobbyist Christy Bouma, representing the California Professional Firefighters, said during a May 2015 legislative hearing that “my firefighters have had cases before PERB for up to five years.”

Professional Firefighter’s spokesman Carroll Wills said his group stands “four-square for PERB augmentation to alleviate these backlogs.”

“The vacant positions PERB currently relies on for budgetary purposes may remain vacant,” the analyst concluded, particularly because the board’s Glendale office must move into a yet-to-be-determined space that is compliant with disability-access laws. The cost of the move and leasing the yet-to-be-determined facility, the analyst said, could create “additional pressures to hold positions vacant.”

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