York County 911 dispatchers required to work 12-hour shifts over union's objection

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

Dispatchers at the York County 911 Center are now working regular 12-hour shifts instead of 8-hour shifts with selective overtime, a change the dispatchers' union claims violates its contract.

It's illegal for management to change the dispatchers' contractually set schedule outside of collective bargaining, said Steve Mullen, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"They basically just came in and said, 'We’re doing this, and it doesn’t matter what you say,'" he said.

The purpose of the change, which went into effect March 29, was to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the 911 center's staff and operations, said York County spokesman Mark Walters.

The idea is that reducing the number of shift changes, from three to two, would limit the possibility of staff being exposed to the coronavirus, because fewer people will be coming and going throughout the day, Walters confirmed.

"For the life of us, we can’t figure out how that limits someone’s exposure when you still have the same number of employees in there," Mullen said.

An employee talks with a co-worker at the York County 911 Center Monday, July 31, 2017. County spokesman Mark Walters and lead training supervisor Roxie Tate talked with the media Monday, Feb. 26 regarding recent problems with the center's paging system. Bill Kalina photo

According to the union contract, dispatchers are required to work 40 hours per week in 8-hour shifts scheduled by management, Mullen said, in addition to 12 hours of flexible weekly overtime that employees can schedule on their own.

The union later agreed to increase the overtime to 20 hours per week on a temporary basis, until the managers could hire more dispatchers. Those 20 hours were still flexible, meaning dispatchers could choose when to work the extra time, Mullen said.

But the new 12-hour shifts will not be flexible, he said. Instead, all 60 hours will be scheduled by management.

>>Like what you’re reading? Not a subscriber? Click here for full access to The York Dispatch’s hard-hitting news, local sports and entertainment.

At least one dispatcher, Patricia Huse, is leaving her job at the 911 center because of the change.

In a written statement, Huse said she's worked at the York County 911 Center for 11 years and made significant personal sacrifices for her job, including missing out on holidays and birthdays, dance recitals and soccer games with her husband and three children, two of whom have chronic health conditions.

But the daily stress dispatchers experience at work also takes its toll on the employees, she said.

"There are tears after giving a mom CPR instructions on her infant because they stopped breathing, just hoping help will get there soon," she said. "It is not unusual to hear a caller give their last breath or listen to the tears of an elderly husband or wife realizing their loved one is passing."

Dispatchers usually don't get closure about what happened to the people on the other end of the phone line, Huse said, and it's important for them to have an outlet outside of work to decompress.

Huse said the previous overtime schedule was not ideal, but it was flexible enough that she was able to coach her son's soccer team and run the associated recreational soccer program.

"Coaching for me was the outlet, and with the new schedule, this outlet would be taken away," she said in the statement.

"We were not given enough notice to change our homelife  schedules and currently there are not enough employees to support a twelve-hour shift to ensure that employees are provided with enough scheduled time away from the center," she said. 

Poor staff retention, over-reliance on overtime hours and other management woes have plagued the 911 center for years.

The county spent nearly $1 million on outside consultants over the past few years to diagnose the problem, including a $750,000 contract with New Jersey-based IXP Corp., before director Matthew Hobson took over in February.

Mullen said he was disappointed that the county commissioners would not meet with the dispatchers to hear their concerns, instead of sending a human resources representative.

York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler said in an email Thursday that all employee concerns must be addressed through the proper channels, as outlined in the union contract and county policies.

"These issues and any others that arise are addressed by the County Human Resource representatives on behalf of the Commissioners," she wrote.

Commissioner Ron Smith, who campaigned heavily on dealing with the problems at the 911 center in his 2019 election bid, declined to comment.

Commissioner Doug Hoke deferred to Wheeler, the president commissioner.

"The biggest issue there, at the 911 center, is they will not listen to the employees," Mullen said. "And that’s why these recruitment-retention problems are going to continue."

More:New director of York County's embattled 911 center says this is his greatest challenge

More:VIDEO: County 911 dispatcher discusses job conditions