New patches for N.Y. sheriff’s employees turns into legal squabble with union
Sheriff Toby Shelley proposed phasing out department-specific patches, but the union says that would violate its collective bargaining agreement
By Anne Hayes
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — It seemed like a simple idea: replace uniform patches worn by Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office employees with a new one that everyone could wear.
That simple idea has led to a grievance being filed by the union representing the patrol deputies and a counter-lawsuit filed by the sheriff’s office against the union.
Sheriff Toby Shelley, who took office in January, proposed changing the employees’ uniforms by replacing the department-specific arm patches with a standard patch that says “sheriff.”
Currently, the arm patches specify which department – custody, corrections, police or civil – an employee works for.
After Shelley’s administration proposed the change to the uniform, the union representing the police division pushed back and filed a grievance. The union says the uniform change violates its collective bargaining agreement.
In the grievance, union president Laura Collins states that the police division deputies want to keep their department-specific arm patches as a “matter of safety and pride.”
“This will promote legitimate, earned pride in position, enhance safety and avoid the unnecessary expense of replacing patches and/or uniforms,” Collins wrote in the grievance.
The sheriff has gone to State Supreme Court asking for a judge to toss out the grievance.
Undersheriff Jeffery Passino – who was a former union president – said in court papers that the change in patches will save money and unify the sheriff’s office’s employees.
“The Administration feels strongly that the Sheriff’s Office is a single entity and should reflect that,” Passino said in court papers. “Having a single patch goes a long way towards that goal.”
Shelley said Thursday that the office would save money by having only one style of patch on the uniforms rather than two.
The savings would be up to $10,000 a year with standardized uniforms, said Tom Newton, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office.
If deputies change divisions, the office would not have to order new uniforms right away, Passino said. The office can also order the patches in bulk and save money that way, said Matthew Fischer, chief of the police division.
Passino told Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard Thursday that the sheriff’s office does not plan to have deputies replace their current uniforms immediately. He said they plan to phase out the old uniforms over time.
Fischer said that deputies already have to replace their uniforms every few years.
The union is also arguing that removing changing the patches will lead to confusion.
“There will be no way for bargaining unit members or the public to know if an individual works in Police, Corrections, Custody or Civil or Courts,” Collins wrote in the grievance.
In the demand for arbitration, an attorney representing the police division union said that the removal of the patches will make it difficult for police division members – as the “most highly trained of the deputies” – to identify one another in high-stakes situations, resulting in safety concerns. The safety concerns make this grievance a mandatory subject of bargaining, according to the demand for arbitration.
Grievances filed by the union go through three steps of review before the union can demand arbitration. The steps in this case were reviews by the police division chief, the chief deputy of administration and finally by the county director of employee relations.
The grievance was denied by all three administrators. They all argued that changing the uniforms is not a mandatory subject of bargaining covered under the union contract.
Passino said in his affidavit that the administration has always had the ability to change the uniforms and the uniforms have been altered repeatedly over the years.
Shelley and the county are now asking a judge to dismiss the grievance so they can move forward with the plan to change the uniform.