Ill. police union 'fed up' with delays in getting years of back pay from city

East St. Louis owes the members more than $1 million in back pay, including active and retired officers or their surviving family members, the union said

By Carolyn P. Smith
Belleville News-Democrat

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — It's been nearly two years since an arbitrator said the city of East St. Louis owed union members in the police department years of back pay.

But they still haven't received the money, and union members say they want the public to know. The union picketed outside of City Hall last week to call attention to the issue.

"The East St. Louis police officers are fed up and concerned about the apparent lack of concern for public safety from City leaders," said David Amerson, a staff lawyer and representative for the Policemen's Benevolent Labor Committee. "When city leaders play games with frontline public servants, they diminish the safety and well-being of the entire community."

According to union members and their president, Tia Mitchell, the city owes the members more than $1 million in back pay, including active and retired officers or their surviving family members.

City Manager Robert Betts said in a recent BND interview that there are "some discrepancies" in the union's calculations of how much the financially troubled city owes the union members, but officials hope to have the back-pay issue resolved soon.

"We're working on some final calculations, trying to get the final numbers in place to try to get the officers their back pay," Betts said.

Union members say they already know what they are owed and are tired of delays in getting their back pay after a court-appointed arbitrator in a contract dispute ruled in their favor on Aug. 2, 2021. The arbitrator, Jacalyn Zimmerman, said that officers were entitled to a 2% raise, retroactive to the December 2015 expiration of an old contract.

The arbitration ruling did not indicate how much the retroactive pay would total. But any officer who was on the city's payroll since the last contract expired at the end of 2015, even if they have left the East St. Louis Police Department or retired, is entitled to a prorated share.

The officers started receiving a 2% raise in March 2022, according to the union, but not the back pay.

"Despite the rising cost of living and dwindling staff, the East St. Louis police officer did not receive raises for years," Amerson said. " When the city was ordered by an arbitrator to raise wages and back pay for missed wages, the city still refused. Several months later the city finally started paying the required wages, but has still refused to pay the backpay they owe."

Betts said city officials hope to have the back-pay issue resolved this month.

"We've communicated that to the officers and to their union representatives as well. The city has had some transition recently," said Betts, referring to the new city administration under Mayor Charles Powell III. " Anytime transition takes place, it takes a little time to get your hands around things, get reorganized and figure out how things are going to work. It is a priority for us to get this resolved."

Mitchell, the local union president, said the union simply wants the city to honor the arbitration ruling.

"The union never wanted to fight with the city, we just want what is owed to us. We're not asking for anything we haven't worked for," Mitchell said..

Officers raise questions about staffing

Betts, in the BND interview, also addressed concerns by some officers that the Powell administration is creating new positions for people when it should be saving the money to fund the back pay owed the union members.The officers did not want to be named for this story for fear of retaliation.

Betts said no new positions have been created. He said some officials who were "wrongfully terminated" in the former administration have been brought back. He said director of the Emergency Disaster Service Agency was also an existing position, but it had been contracted out in prior administrations. The Powell administration recently hired former fire chief Jason Blackmon to fill that role at about $55,000 per year.

"Those funds that are owed the police officers are available and the ESDA position has no impact on the funds available to pay them whatsoever," Betts said. " No other positions to my knowledge — no new positions have come through the city. We have a couple of grants where people may see some new people running around- a development grant to help get the city cleaned out. Outside of that no new employment positions have been created."

He said the mayor and city council have been briefed on the police union back pay situation and "we're moving forward with trying to bring that to fruition as quickly as possible."

Betts acknowledged that the police department on some shifts has worked with a skeleton crew, but he said officers are on patrol for every shift. The East St. Louis officers who did not want to be identified insist that there has been at least one shift where local rank and file officers were not on duty.

"We always have some officers on the streets," Betts said. " ISP (Illinois State Police Public Safety Enforcement Group) has been assisting. We have mutual assist with other municipalities. We had several officers call off our the weekend ( a couple of weeks ago) for power outages and different things at their residences. We always have some officers on the street. "

Betts said there is a shortage of officers, but the problem is one that other towns are experiencing too. And, he said, the city is currently looking to hire additional qualified and certified officers.


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