About 300 Okaloosa County workers show interest in unionizing

CRESTVIEW — About 300 Okaloosa County support staff employees have shown interest in forming a union for better pay, health insurance and working conditions.


More than a half dozen of the workers held signs and joined organizers from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union Friday morning outside the county’s Brackin Building offices to announce their union campaign.


The building includes offices for the county commissioners and county human resources director.


The support staffers who want to unionize include equipment operators, construction technicians, groundskeepers and customer service representatives.


"We demand a fair process for the county workers to form a union" with due process but without retaliation and harassment, AFSCME organizer Darcy Davis said during the campaign event. "They want a voice and a seat at the table."


One of the signs held by a county worker read, "Halloween is over but our working conditions are still scary." Another read, "County healthcare is making us sick!" and another posed the question, "Where’s our raises?"


County construction technician Barry Allen said he and other county employees who want to unionize have issues with low wages and high health care costs, which force many of them to work second jobs.


Allen, who has worked in various county positions for the past four years, also said the county does not follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards and that it worries about the well-being of subcontractors more than that of its own employees.


"They give us minimal raises to try to counteract increases to the health care costs," he said.


Allen said after he tried to talk on one of his recent days off with some of his on-the-job co-workers about unionizing, he was suspended for a day.


According to the disciplinary action form given to Allen, county officials stated, "When on county property, you should not distract others from performing their jobs. If personal leave is used, then you should not be on county property, in any location, in any capacity, outside that of a standard customer."


The state headquarters for the AFSCME union is in Tallahassee. To become official, the potential union for county support staff workers must be registered with the Public Employees Relation Commission (PERC) in Tallahassee, and a majority of the workers must vote in a PERC-controlled election in favor of forming the union.


Immediately following the union campaign announcement, the Daily News spoke with County Commissioner Graham Fountain, Deputy County Administrator of Support Services Kay Godwin and county Human Resources Director Edward Sisson in Fountain’s Brackin Building office.


Fountain represents District 1, which includes a part of Crestview.


"We recognize that we’re not overly competitive in these pay issues," Fountain said. "People here like to keep their tax rates low. You have a set amount of budget and so much income, and we try to give (county employees) the best we can."


Godwin said county employees received a 4% cost-of-living raise on Oct. 1, and they are eligible for a 2% pay raise on their employment anniversary dates.


Forming a union would not help improve the county’s health insurance coverage, Sisson said.


"The county doesn’t keep the money for the higher health insurance premiums," he said. "That money goes to Florida Blue."


In response to allegations of unsafe working conditions, Fountain said the county hired a safety coordinator for its Risk Management Division last year.


"I have no knowledge of an OSHA violation," Fountain said. "If we know of it, we’ll investigate it and take care of it."


The number of county employees who are under the County Commission’s purview totals about 900. They do not include Sheriff’s Office employees.


In September, a majority of the 70 county Emergency Medical Services Division workers voted to unionize. The only other union in the county’s history was the one EMS employees temporarily joined in 1981, according to Godwin.