Employee Waits Five Years to File a Grievance and Doesn’t Get Her Day in Court

Grievance procedures include timelines for a reason.  Arbitration is supposed to be a quick alternative to the trial process, so that the parties may resolve their issues and continue their relationship.  However, it is always a difficult proposition for employers to have timelines enforced by arbitrators.  Many things go into an arbitrator’s decision on whether to allow untimely grievances to proceed on the merits.  In the case of Stearns County and AFSCME, the employer was fortunate to have the case denied on procedural grounds.

The basis for the original grievance was simple: the grievant, an assistant county attorney, had her salary step increase pushed back due to a three-month unpaid maternity leave in 2018.  The step change was reflected in the grievant’s notice of wage change in 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023.  It was not until May of 2023 that the union filed a step 2 grievance over the delay in step increase on her behalf.  The County responded to the grievance stating it was untimely.

Working in the County’s favor, the parties agreed to bifurcate the hearing on the issue of timeliness.  This meant that a hearing still took place, but the arbitrator would hold off on hearing the merits on the substantive issue of the step denial.

After hearing the arguments of the parties, Arbitrator Patrick Kelly stated, “The timelines are established for both parties to have clear and consistent application of time limits, avoid stale claims and eliminate continued problems.”  The arbitrator noted that with the grievant’s experience as an attorney, she is aware of statutory timelines, so the timelines in grievance procedures were not something foreign to her.  The grievant also received several e-mails notifying her of her step increase anniversary date, and did nothing for several years.

In his decision, the arbitrator stated, “The CBA imposes mandatory grieving process requirement on the Union and County in this case the Union failed.”  He found that the grievance was not filed within the 15 day time limit as stated in the CBA, and the evidence was clear the alleged offense occurred five years prior.  With that, he denied a hearing on the merits of the grievance.

The importance of bifurcating the hearing in this case cannot be understated.  Bifurcation allows the procedural portions of the case to be heard without any impact on more substantive portions of the collective bargaining agreement.  It also gives the arbitrator the opportunity to hear a portion of the case, and write an award, which is what arbitrators are paid to do.  Finally, while union representatives might not say this, it gives their members the opportunity to be “heard,” without exposing the unit to an unfavorable award on the substance of its contract.

Findings such as this are not common.  Many employee representatives will find a way to keep a grievance from being denied on procedural grounds.  If you, or your organization need assistance in processing or arbitrating your grievances, contact Wiley Reber Law, for arbitration experience that works.