Calif. county COs can strike after judge's decision limiting attendance

"There will be a strike. It's just a matter of when and how many people," an attorney representing the union said

By Brianna Vaccari
The Fresno Bee

FRESNO COUNTY, Calif. — A Fresno County Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that Fresno County correctional officers can go on strike, but some still must report to work to maintain public health and safety.

Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan granted a temporary restraining order and injunction limiting certain employees from any work stoppage actions. The ruling stopped short of prohibiting the strike altogether.

At issue was whether the county could use deputy sheriffs to backfill correctional officer positions. That will be determined at a later date.

The Public Employee Relations Board sought in court to restrain 145 correctional officers from striking and for 20 to be placed on-call to “avoid an imminent threat to the health and safety of the public.”

Fresno County officials said in court that a strike would be illegal.

However, attorneys for the Fresno County Public Safety Association called Thursday’s court ruling a win.

“There will be a strike. It’s just a matter of when and how many people,” said Rafael Ruano, an attorney representing the union.

The union announced its intent to strike last week after rejecting the county’s latest contract proposal. Union officials said low pay has led to a staffing shortage and a dangerous work environment inside the jail.

County officials said they value the work of correctional officers and hope to resolve the matter.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims was in court Thursday but did not testify. She did not respond to a request for comment from The Bee.

[RELATED: Calif. county jail COs plan strike, cite dangerous work conditions]

Kapetan said the Fresno County Jail is “an effective prison, at this time.”

Che Johnson, an attorney for Fresno County, seemed to agree with her, especially in the event of an imminent strike.

“The county does have a sincere concern about the state of the jail, which, as you correctly stated, is essentially a prison from now until June 16 with the limited numbers (of staffing) that have been provided by the Public Employment Relations (Board),” he told Kapetan.

Johnson said that if the strike moves forward at PERB staffing level recommendations, a number of services may come to an end within five days, including: closed lobbies, preventing visitation; long wait lines for law enforcement bringing arrestees to the jail; delayed, restricted or canceled medical services for inmates; suspended inmate programs; canceled inmate recreation time; delayed transportation of inmates to courthouses and more.

Brendan White, an attorney for the Public Employee Relations Board, said that PERB made the staffing recommendations based on numbers provided by the county. He questioned Johnson’s credibility.

“Our job as the Public Employment Relations Board is to protect the health and safety of the public. It is not to break a strike,” White said. “So to the extent that the county is now realizing, when we’re here today in court, wants to get greedy and seek to enjoin everyone, I would submit that that’s inappropriate. It’s also inconsistent with every prior representation they made.”

Ruano said as many as 250 correctional officers intended to strike. With the current strike limitations, he estimated anywhere from 75 to 100 correctional officers may strike beginning Monday. There’s also a chance a full strike may be delayed until the matter is settled.

Kapetan set another hearing for June 16. Until then, attorneys for the county and union will prepare their arguments on whether deputy sheriffs can fill in for the striking correctional officers.

The union’s attorneys argue there are custodial duties listed in deputy sheriff’s job descriptions.

“I can’t speak for all counties, but I don’t think it’s very unusual for sworn deputies to work in custodial positions when the need arises,” said Tony Silva, a labor representative for the union.

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