Staff taking skills elsewhere, proposal supporters say
By Elaine Ezerins, Messenger Staff Writer
ST. ALBANS – A former Franklin County Superior Court docket clerk considers a pay raise for the judicial docket clerks across the state to be long overdue, citing the job’s responsibilities and required knowledge base as indicators that the employees should earn more than $14.75 an hour to start.
Judicial docket clerks are currently looking for a substantial pay raise, as the union, the Vermont State Employees’ Association (VSEA), and the judiciary branch negotiate the upcoming two-year contract for all judiciary branch employees.
Both parties are in agreement over a proposal to increase wages for unionized judiciary employees by 3.7 percent this fiscal year and 3.95 percent the following. The proposal includes funding for time-step increases, raises given to employees based on the length of time served. It’s the same increase in wages that was given to employees in the executive branch this year.
The proposal will coast nearly $1 million, which the legislature has already authorized funding for, according to the judiciary branch. There isn’t a penny more to spare, according to the court administrator, Pat Gabel.
On top of a $1 million raise in wages for all employees, the union is pursuing a proposal for judicial docket clerks, which would bump the clerks’ pay grade from 15 to pay grade 19.
The starting salary for pay grade 15 is $15.75. For pay grade 19, it’s $18.08.
The state estimates that the union’s second proposal for docket clerks could cost an additional $1.5 million, paid out over two years. VTDigger quotes Joe McNeil, the lead contract negotiator for the judiciary, as saying, “We don’t believe the Legislature is likely to fund an additional $750,000 (each year) to the judiciary for docket clerk reclassifications without credible evidence that they’re misclassified at the present.”
According to David Sicard, a former docket clerk for Franklin County Superior Court, the evidence is already there.
“The responsibilities, the job requirements, the knowledge base is all there,” Sicard said. “When a docket clerk, within the first five years of working can leave the judiciary and go to another branch of the government and make more money with no more knowledge base, that should be an indicator.”
Sicard speaks from experience, leaving his position as a full-time docket clerk in October to become a victim’s advocate for the Grand Isle courts. The new position is part-time, he said, but in the grand scheme of things, he’s making only $150 less a week, which can easily be made up for by picking up a shift somewhere.
“I’m working less and still breaking even,” he said.
When Sicard thought back to his days as a docket clerk, he summarized the job with on word: “stressful.”
“You get there at 7:30 a.m. and you’re running,” he said. “There’s days, and quite often, where I wouldn’t sit until I had my lunch.” Every day, Sicard said he would make a to-do list in his head on the commute to work, prioritizing what needed to get done that day.
Upon arrival, things didn’t always go according to plan, Sicard said, between serving as the front counter docket clerk for all criminal cases, answering phones, entering all new cases into the computer system, except for juvenile court, making copy and transcript requests as well as record checks and occasionally serving as back up personnel for the court room. “In addition to any other things that needed to be taken care of,” Sicard added.
“You can’t sit there for half an hour and talk to someone,” he said. “It’s just not a possibility. And unfortunately, on the customer service side, it makes you come across as rude or not helpful… where basically, what you’re trying to do, is get them the most amount of information in the quickest amount of time. And then move on to the next person that’s waiting in line.”
“And you’re dealing with people not always at the best point in their life,” Sicard said. “A lot of times, there’s a lot of anger. As the person at the counter, the person dealing with them, it’s vented at you.”
“You’re the face,” he continued. “You’re the one that they see… they can’t yell at the judge… so you get the brunt of it.”
“I’ve been threatened,” Sicard said, pointing out that the glass separator between the clerks and the outside doesn’t serve as much of a barrier because of the open help windows.
Sicard said he left the position because the stress was starting to get to him, making it no longer a good fit. “Health wise, I wasn’t feeling well a lot of the time,” he said. “I was tired. I was grouchy.” So becoming a victim’s advocate, complete with less hours and better pay, was an easy jump, according to Sicard.
“I think the judiciary’s finding out that people are leaving because they can, for higher pay,”
“There was a recently a period of time in which for docket clerks left the Chittenden Courts because of low pay,” Ben Joseph, a retired judge said. “The pattern is state wide.”
Joseph said people come in to work as docket clerks, make $14.75 during the six month probationary period and then after a year, find out their skill set is worth a lot more and leave for better wages in attorneys’ offices and others involved in the court system.
Sicard said, in his opinion, if the position requires work experience and a knowledge base almost equivalent to that of a college degree, it should be classified as a pay grade 20 or higher.
“I understand the judiciary in that your largest number of employees are looking for a raise and it’s going to hurt (financially),” he said. There are more than 100 docket clerks across the state, according to the Department of Human Resources.
“But it’s overdue,” he said. “When you have good employees, it’s worth the investment.”
“I think that there has to be a concerted effort to raise the amount of money that the state passes down to the judiciary,” Joseph said. “It’s not that there’s not enough money. Money is being spent on other things.”
The judiciary branch insists they don’t have money to fund VSEA’s second proposal.
According to the communications manager at VSEA, there is another fact-finding session scheduled in August and the “team is still at the table… they haven’t dropped the fight.”