Public school budgets are intricate, often byzantine, documents. Governing bodies of educational institutions are charged by law to budget salaries and compensation for all employees. When employees are represented by a collective bargaining representative a negotiated agreement about wages can be calculated and factored into the budget equation. Employers can handle that with relative dispatch.
Many public sector employers enter into multi-year agreements with unions that allow for an annual wage reopener along with one other “non-wage” item. In Maryland, where our firm is headquartered, that approach to long-term collective bargaining agreements arises because of a Maryland Supreme Court case that appears to hold public sector wages only can be “guaranteed” for one year. Public sector annual budget obligations are not trumped by long-term collective bargaining agreements. That often translates in collective bargaining to an annual wage reopener, and another non-wage item for good measure.
In 2017, the Board of Education of Washington County, Maryland, entered into a collective bargaining agreement with a union representing support workers to last through 2021, but with a wage reopener and one other item allowed in 2020. The union selected minimum hours of work as the second item. The Board asserted that the second subject was an illegal topic of bargaining. It appears that the Board believed, at least in part, that bargaining minimum hours of work was a backdoor attempt to raise wages a second way.
The case wended through administrative procedures and into court. There, it reached the Maryland Appellate Court which held that the second topic was appropriate and legal bargaining because, emphasis supplied by the court, bargaining topics included, “wages, hours, and other working conditions.” Evidently, the Court views the costs mandated by minimum hours under a reopener not to be negotiating about wages, but about hours, a separate matter.
Public sector employers are well advised to craft reopeners to protect against such rear-guard attacks. Board Of Education of Washington County v. Washington County Educational Support Personnel, Inc., Appellate Court of Maryland, No. 22 (2023)