Nebraska State Troopers Say Patrol Thwarts Their Service With National Guard

LINCOLN, NE — Two state troopers have filed a labor complaint against the Nebraska State Patrol, alleging that the patrol is making it harder for them to serve part time in the National Guard or military reserve.

They say the patrol violated a state labor contract that allows troopers to change their weekly days off “when practicable” so they can attend military drills without using vacation days.

An attorney for the state troopers union called the patrol’s action “insulting” to troopers who serve in the military when the agency routinely asks officers to change days off to avoid accumulating overtime.

“It appears to us that they want people to choose between working for the patrol and serving their country,” said Gary Young, a Lincoln attorney who represents the State Troopers Association of Nebraska. “These are people we’re supposed to be valuing.”

The patrol, in letters responding to the grievance, said that because of low staffing levels, it cannot accommodate changes in days off without leaving the patrol understaffed or forcing more senior officers to change their schedules.

“It is difficult for our troop area commanders to establish and maintain adequate coverage with our current sworn workforce,” wrote Col. Dave Sankey, the patrol’s superintendent. “At this time, it is not practicable for employees to change their regular days off to avoid using available leave for military drill schedules.”

Currently the patrol has 483 sworn officers, 43 fewer that a decade ago and the lowest level since 1987, though a new class of recruits is being assembled for a training camp.

A patrol spokeswoman said the agency does not respond to personnel questions, but pointed out that the patrol recently was honored by the U.S. Defense Department’s Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve unit for supporting its citizen-soldier employees.

“The agency appreciates our employees’ service to our military and will continue to ensure they are given time off for military obligations,” spokeswoman Deb Collins wrote in an email.

The issue in the recent labor grievance is whether a trooper needs to use vacation time to attend military drills. The policy used to be more flexible, allowing a trooper to adjust days off, according to Young, the union attorney, but was altered two years ago.

By federal law, employers must provide at least 15 days off a year, or 120 hours a year, for employees to attend military drills, according to Beth Sherman of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, which tries to arbitrate military leave matters between employers and employees.

Employers can give that time off as paid leave or unpaid leave, Sherman said, but many employers do provide paid leave.

The Omaha Police Department and the City of Omaha, for instance, allow 15 days a year of paid leave, as does the State of Nebraska for its State Patrol and non-patrol employees.

How employers handle military leave beyond the 15 days varies. Steve Kerrigan, assistant human resources director for the City of Omaha, said employees can choose to take vacation or unpaid leave, but supervisors have the ability to change days off it works for that department.

The city, under a directive from then-Mayor Mike Fahey, also allows employees to spread out their paid military leave to keep their health insurance active during long military deployments.

“We do a lot to ensure there’s no disruption because they’re serving their country,” Kerrigan said.

Young said he expects more complaints to come. The patrol, according to state personnel records, ranks just behind the Departments of Corrections and Military in granting military leave for National Guard and reserve employees.

The state provided $346,385 in paid military leave during the 2011-12 fiscal year, down from a high of $473,552 during 2007-08.

The two troopers who filed the recent complaints, Nathan Avery and Samuel Mortensen, are stationed out of Troop C in Kearney.

Avery requested that he swap his regular days off of Sunday and Monday, July 28-29, with Thursday and Friday, July 25-26, for a four-day Guard drill. Mortensen, whose regular days off are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, requested that those be shifted to the weekend to accommodate his military drills.

In their complaints, the troopers stated that shifting their days off would not leave the patrol with inadequate staffing, but that forcing them to take an extra two days off during those weeks would. They pointed out that the patrol would benefit by extra cruisers on duty for a special traffic enforcement effort in July.

Young, the troopers union attorney, said the patrol’s denial of flex time is wrongheaded.

“The result of the policy is to reduce the number of troopers on duty that week,” he said.

From The Omaha World-Herald