The picket line is informational, so union members continue to work.
By VIRGINIA ROSS
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- New Castle Youth Development Center employees have agreed to stop picketing outside the facility if a colleague, who was suspended in April, is allowed to return to work.
Mike Vitale, president of the union representing youth development aides at the Shenango Township facility, said management agreed Thursday to take employees' demands to state Department of Public Welfare officials. He said employees are waiting to hear from Linda Shink, executive director at the facility, who told them she must obtain approval from the welfare department before bringing the suspended employee back to work.
& quot;We're just waiting on that phone call," Vitale said. "If the word is good, and [the suspended employee] can come back to work, we'll stop picketing immediately. If that doesn't happen, we'll continue picketing until the state gets here."
State officials are scheduled to arrive at the center June 29. Vitale said the aide, whom he declined to identify, was accused of abusing three children at the facility. He said that he and other employees believe the woman, who has worked at the center about three years, is innocent and that the youth had attacked her. The facility houses juvenile offenders, ages 12 to 21, from throughout the state. There are 144 residents there now.
Last week another aide, Michael Richardson, reportedly was fired after he was accused of swearing at a resident. Richardson's termination came a few days shy of completing his six-month probationary period, and soon after, he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging that working conditions at the center are unsafe, Vitale said.
On Monday, members of Vitale's union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 2353, set up an informational picket line outside the facility. Picketing has continued from 6 a.m. to midnight each day. Vitale said several counselors have also joined the picket line. He said that although having the suspended worker reinstated is important, it is just one piece of a bigger issue concerning staff safety. He said management typically sides with the residents, and not the staff, when incidents occur. And when employees lodge complaints or file grievances, they face retaliation, he said.
He said about a year ago another colleague was fired after filing a grievance against the company, but later that employee won his job back.
Vitale said management has continually agreed to improve conditions, but later reneged on those promises. Meanwhile, since Monday, Shink has remained unavailable to comment, directing her staff to refer calls to state welfare officials. Stacey Ward, a state welfare department spokeswoman in Harrisburg, on Thursday said she could not comment on specific incidents but said all claims or complaints filed by employees are thoroughly investigated. She said if an employee has a concern, he or she is encouraged to report it immediately. "The safety of our staff and the residents at the facility are top priority," she said. "We are committed to that."
But Vitale maintains that management has refused to hold residents accountable for the harm they cause staff by hitting, punching, spitting on and kicking the workers. He said management has told staff not to report these incidents.
"We're tired of it," he said. "The kids' words mean more than what the staff has to say. We're here to do a job. I don't think it's too much to ask for some priority to be placed on our safety."
Because the picketing is informational in nature, and not the result of a strike due to contract or salary negotiations, employees have continued working their regular shifts. Local 2353 represents some 250 youth development aides.