The Prince William Board of County Supervisors voted Tuesday to adopt a collective bargaining ordinance that will allow most of its 6,000 employees – including hundreds of police officers and firefighters – to choose a representative to negotiate their pay and benefits with county executive staff and elected officials.
But supervisors acknowledged the ordinance is a work in progress and pledged to review the document over the next 90 days to allow employees to continue to recommend possible adjustments.
The review period came at the request of Supervisor Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan, who said more time is needed to work out “disconnects” and “misunderstandings” between county employees and the county’s executive staff over what the ordinance says about the ability of employees to negotiate working conditions as well as other matters.
“I feel this review period will give us more time to work things out,” Boddye said.
In a series of mostly party-line votes, with Democratic supervisors voting in favor and Republicans opposed, the board approved an 18-page collective bargaining ordinance that lays the groundwork to allow county employees to take advantage of new collective bargaining rights now allowed in Virginia, thanks to legislation state lawmakers passed in 2020.
Among other things, the ordinance details the process for setting up bargaining units for three employee groups: police, firefighters and general service employees.
The document also details how the employees select their bargaining representatives as well as what can be included in their negotiations with the county’s executive staff.
The ordinance stipulates that pay and benefits can be negotiated but allows the county managers latitude over such things as work schedules, rules, procedures and standards and the ability to modify or eliminate workplace health and safety rules as long as they adhere to state and federal law.
The ordinance also stipulates that county employees cannot strike, which would be a violation of Virginia law. Anything resembling a work stoppage would be considered an unfair labor practice that could result in employees losing their jobs and becoming ineligible for rehiring for at least 12 months.
Prior to the vote, the supervisors held a public hearing during which several employees criticized the ordinance for not allowing county workers to have more say over working conditions and for excluding part-time workers.
At the same time, leaders of the police and firefighters’ unions spoke of pay scales that lag significantly behind those of neighboring jurisdictions, growing staff vacancies and unpopular policies such as “mandatory overtime” in both the police and fire departments.
Mitch Nason, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2598, called the firefighter staffing shortage “an absolute emergency.”
Nason said local firefighters’ starting pay, at $18 an hour, is the lowest of any Northern Virginia jurisdiction. The department is so short staffed that firefighters are routinely asked to volunteer for overtime shifts to prevent them from becoming mandatory, he said.
Nason noted that some firefighters would likely have to pull overtime shifts even on Thanksgiving.
“Absent folks not signing up to work [overtime], someone’s not going home on Thursday morning to their family,” Nason told the board. “I work Wednesday. I might be one of them. And we do that on a routine basis. Why? Because we have so many vacancies within the fire department.”
Katie Zaimis, president of the Prince William County Police Association, said about 100 of the Prince William County Police Department’s 704 sworn officer positions are currently vacant. Zaimis also said the department’s pay had fallen behind that of neighboring jurisdictions and that officers are also working mandatory overtime.
“I wish the citizens of Prince William County truly understood how few officers are policing our streets right now,” Zaimis said. “If they did, this chamber would be full of angry citizens today.”
At the close of the public hearing, the supervisors voted 5-3 to approve the ordinance with all five Democrats voting in favor of the new law and the three Republicans – Supervisors Pete Candland, R-Gainesville; Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville; and Yesli Vega, R-Coles – voting against it.
Board Chair Ann Wheeler, D-At Large, called the passing of the ordinance the start of “a new era in Prince William County.”
Wheeler further noted that the collective bargaining for county employees is standard around the U.S. and will not preclude the county from retaining its much-touted triple, triple-A bond rating, which affords it the ability to borrow at low interest rates.
Still, she acknowledged that allowing employees to collectively bargain will impact the county’s budget but said the supervisors have made “structural changes” to allow the county to afford to pay employees more.
“I see it as a very good thing for our employees. This budget season, we really want to focus inward on our employees,” Wheeler noted, suggesting that pay raises would be a priority.
Directly after the vote, Boddye introduced two directives meant to address employees’ concerns about the collective bargaining ordinance.
The first established the 90-day review period during which employees can continue to voice concerns and suggest changes. If the supervisors agree that changes are needed, the board could elect to hold another public hearing on any proposed amendments. That directive passed in the same 5-3, party-line vote.
Secondly, Boddye directed the county staff to research possible changes to “section 19” of the county’s code, which keeps the county from allowing part-time employees to participate in collective bargaining.
County attorney Michelle Robl said her office would research what would need to be done to include part-time employees in collective bargaining, analyze the impact of such a change and make a recommendation as to how the board should proceed. That directive passed in a 6-2 vote with Candland voting along with the board’s Democrats to approve it.
Regarding lagging pay and staff vacancies, several supervisors said they hoped to begin working soon on pay increases. In the meantime, Supervisor Victor Angry urged police, firefighters and all county employees to “hold on” despite challenges with pay and staff shortages.
“All of my public servants, you’re very important to this county. I would simply ask that you hold on,” Angry said. “Let’s see how we can fix this thing and get it right. It’s not going to happen overnight. So work with us.”
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org