Contract Dispute and Arbitration Case for Franklin County Sheriff’s Office

Posted by Ian Benzler.

An arbitrator has recently ruled against the sheriff and in favor of the Teamsters union in Franklin County, Washington, after Sheriff Jim Raymond tried to prevent a union representative, Jesus Alvarez, from visiting jail employees, known as correction officers, outside of normal working hours.  Further, Raymond only let union representatives visit their clients when escorted by the sheriff himself or a human resources worker. Despite the arbitrator’s ruling, Sheriff Raymond does not plan on changing his actions as he feels that “An arbitrator has no authority to order a sheriff to open the jail hour doors to a union. This is just a union trying to take control away from the sheriff, so they can control a law enforcement operation.”  Raymond also explains he is simply preventing union representatives from meeting correction officers in the jail and that they are free to meet at any time in any other location.

The Teamsters union plans to continue to challenge the sheriff’s actions as they aim to completely resolve the conflict, which has been going on for 18 months since October 2020.  Six months earlier, the correction officers dropped their previous union, the Franklin County Correction Officers Association, and picked up the Teamsters Union to represent them.  The Franklin County Correction Officers Association had negotiated the correction officers’ previous contract, which contained the provision that the labor representative “may visit the work location of employees covered by the agreement at any reasonable time for the purpose of investigating grievances.”  However, this agreement had expired more than a year prior to the arbitrator’s decision.  As such, representatives were allowed to enter the jail at any hour after being met at the gate. There was no issue during the first six months that Teamsters represented the correction officers but then on October 6, 2020, Sheriff Raymond changed policy to prevent visits after normal hours.

The dispute then spilled into arbitration, which looked into the issues of the work location for correction officers and what is reasonable hours for visit at the jail.  County officials deemed work location to be the entire Franklin County Courthouse, including the jail, and that reasonable visiting hours were the normal business hours.  They further argued that the Teamsters were not there to negotiate the contract and thus did not know how the provision was to be interpreted.  On the other hand, the union argued that the policy change came as a result of hostility toward the union as its representatives were able to come into the jail for six months.  The union also argued that only being allowed to visit during normal visiting hours would prevent employees working night shifts from being able to raise any issues they face. The arbitrator ultimately ruled that “since Alvarez had been allowed to come into the jail both during day and night shifts for six months, which showed what the past practice had been.”

This article relates to business law as it discusses the topics of arbitration and contract dispute, both of which are topics that we have discussed in class.  A contract is an agreement between two or more parties that is legally binding and enforceable.  A contract dispute occurs when any party in a contract disagrees with any terms, definitions, or provisions contained within the contract.  Arbitration is an alternative dispute resolution where a neutral third party, known as the arbitrator, hears the dispute and imposes a legally binding resolution for both parties.  The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and the correction officers that work there were engaged in a contract that provided guidelines for how the officers were to perform their duties and meet with their union representatives.  The sheriff of Franklin County disagreed with the contract’s provision that allowed union representatives to enter the jail at any reasonable time, and as such initiated a contract dispute.  Finally, the dispute moved to arbitration where the arbitrator determined that the jail served as part of the Franklin County Courthouse, which served as a business to its employees, the correction officers.  As such, the arbitration hearing was conducted over business law issues.

This case is very interesting for a few reasons.  First of all, I was surprised to read that the sheriff does not plan to change his policies despite the arbitrator’s ruling.  Decisions made in arbitration are supposed to be legally binding on all parties, so the union representatives should to visit the jail at any hour to meet with all correction officers, per the arbitrator’s decision.  If the sheriff does not follow the ruling, I would expect there to be legal consequences, but the article does not discuss such a possibility.  Next, I was surprised by the arbitrator’s decision to rule in favor of the union.  The ruling seems reasonable based on the old contract, but that contract was expired so I do not think it should be considered legally binding.  I look at it like the current Collective Bargaining Agreement dispute between Major League Baseball and its Players Association: the agreement has expired, and the two sides are in the midst of negotiating a new agreement.  However, until that point, there will not be any baseball played as there are no guidelines that currently prevail over the sport.  I would expect the same to apply for the dispute between the Teamsters union and Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.  Since the two parties are still negotiating a new agreement, then I would not expect there to be any interactions between the parties regarding changes in policy.  The jail is essential to government and needs correction officers so there can not be a total lockout or shutdown of operations like Major League Baseball, but I would not expect the previous contract’s provisions to carry over for more than a year past expiration.

Ian is an accounting major at the Stillman School of Business, Seton Hall University, Class of 2024.