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Courthouse employees and Yellowstone County reach labor deal, avoid strike

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In this file photo, Laurel Young, the clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles, serves a customer while calling out ticket numbers at the Yellowstone County Courthouse in downtown Billings. Young, who has been at the DMV four months, said her new job is interesting because every person who visit has different needs.

After meeting this week, Yellowstone County leadership and members of the clerks union have settled on a tentative labor agreement, averting a strike that had been set to begin Monday. 

“We met ... with the intention of coming to an agreement to avoid any disruption in service to the citizens of Yellowstone County,” Yellowstone County Employees Union President Katie Cosby said in a statement. “Our agreement includes needed raises and better benefits. I’m proud of our members for securing these wins and for their faith in their bargaining team. We are grateful for the support given to us by the community and our members.”

The county and the union have been negotiating a new deal since last spring and roughly 130 Yellowstone County Courthouse employees have worked since July 1 without a contract. Courthouse employees, which includes sheriff's department clerks, are represented by the Montana Federation of Public Employees.

The dispute originated with a clerk shortage in the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s office last fall. After failing to attract qualified candidates to fill the vacant positions, the county sought to advertise the openings with a higher starting salary. The higher salary was still within the union contract pay range listed for the position.

Recognizing that these newly hired clerks would make more than some recently hired clerks working at a lower rate, the sheriff’s office also sought to increase the salaries of the recently hired clerks until the county and the union started contract negotiations that coming spring.

The sheriff’s office needs approval from the union to adjust employee salaries. The union turned down the offer and instead proposed beginning contract negotiations early.

The county declined, stating that it couldn't begin negotiations with the clerks union earlier than the scheduled spring start because it was already in the midst of contract negotiations with another union.

The county then offered to give raises to its 34 lowest-paid clerks, both in the sheriff’s office and in the courthouse until a new contract was negotiated. The union turned down the offer arguing instead for an earlier start to contract negotiations.

The dispute over pay was worked out after prolonged negotiations that eventually involved a mediator and the unfair labor practice ruling against the county. The sticking point had become contract language that dictated county hiring practices.

With a tentative agreement now in place union members will vote to ratify next week. 

See what was happening around Billings last week!

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