Commonwealth Court denies AFSCME's appeal of correctional officer's hiring

By Jim Boyle | Oct 27, 2014

An order to hire a female correctional officer at an all-male Lackawanna County juvenile

facility did not violate the collective bargaining agreement between the county and the local chapter of the American Federation of State,County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), according to a split decision from a three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court.

The ruling affirmed an order submitted by a court-appointed arbitrator, saying that the findings were supported by the essence of the CBA and did not violate a provision forbidding the consideration of gender in hiring decisions.

In June 2010, Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge Trish Corbett ordered the hiring of a female detention officer to work the day shift at the county's juvenile facility. The directive was in response to testimony Corbett heard about the extensive wait times female minors experienced while waiting for transport.

According to the opinion, authored by Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, the juvenile detention center is all-male and the county's only facility for young offenders. When a girl is brought to the detention center, she needs to wait for transport to a juvenile facility in either Tioga or Lancaster counties. Because Lackawanna's facility is all-male, the girls cannot wait in a cell. Instead, they sit in the office until they can be taken to the proper detention center.

The center's policy also requires the presence of a female officer to accompany the offender to her juvenile facility. According to testimony, female offenders would occasionally need to be restrained in the backseat, or escorted into a bathroom, in case she smuggled anything illegal with her. If two male officers are driving the offender to a neighboring facility, she could accuse them of anything she wanted, the testimony says.

Lackawanna's detention center had only male employees, so transport could not begin until a female county employee from another department was available. Those employees, usually probation officers, are typically unavailable until the end of their regular shift, meaning that female offenders would arrive at the detention center at 10 or 11 a.m. and be forced to sit in the office until 4 p.m., according to the opinion.

Following Corbett's order, a female officer was hired in October 2010, leaping over 12 male officers with higher seniority and forcing another day shift officer to switch to another shift. AFSCME Local 87 filed two grievances against the hiring, which were rejected by the arbitrator. The appeal to the Commonwealth Court said that the arbitrator's decision was invalid because it was not derived from the essence of the CBA.

The union argues that the job vacancy and hiring violated several provisions in the contract, including gender bias and the importance of seniority. According to language in the CBA, "When a vacancy occurs within a classification the person possessing the minimum skill and most seniority shall prevail."

However, the Commonwealth Court agreed with the arbitrator's reliance of another provision in the contract, which says, "Juvenile Detention officers who are required to transport female detainees must be accompanied by qualified female personnel.”

Legal restrictions prevent the court from substituting its own logic with that of the arbitrator's. The appeal only needs to determine if the decision is supported by the contract. The court finds that the arbitrator's interpretation favoring one provision over the other is grounded by the CBA's language and, therefore, valid.


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