Unrest Among Police at Air Force Base

Tense labor relations and a hostile work environment are spreading unrest among the 120 civilian police officers at a military base that spans Burlington and Ocean Counties, the officers allege in more than 60 grievances filed since 2010.

The complaints, reviewed by The Inquirer, range from the mundane -- tables and chairs were removed from the officers' break room in August 2010 -- to more serious accusations of verbal and physical assault.

Officers say the sheer volume of complaints -- all filed since the Air Force was put in charge of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst when the three bases merged in October 2009 -- has sapped morale, with new problems popping up almost daily.

In addition to the officers filing internal complaints, the Fraternal Order of Police New Jersey Labor Council, which represents the police union, said it was in the process of filing grievances alleging unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board.

"Everybody is so stressed out here, guys don't want to come to work," said one officer, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "We've tried every avenue."

Of the military personnel who run the base, he said: "They treat us like second-class citizens." At least 10 civilian officers are seeking alternative employment, while others have already left in recent weeks, he said.

The officer added that only a handful of grievances was filed each year while he worked at Fort Dix under the Army's control.

About 120 civilian police officers patrol and protect the base side-by-side with their military counterparts: 315 airmen and sailors.

The officers basically function like a local police department within the base, where 44,000 people live, work, and train. Those people include members of the Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard.

Officers enforce federal, state, and local law. They respond to all kinds of incidents on the base: domestic violence, shoplifting, traffic violations.

Some have contacted Rep. Jon Runyan (R., N.J.), whose district includes parts of the 42,000-acre base. In a statement, Runyan said he has reached out to the base's leadership to address problems raised by the officers.

In late February, the Air Mobility Command -- the Illinois higher headquarters that oversees about a dozen bases, including Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst -- reduced the length of officers' shifts from 12 hours to 10. The move slashed their overtime pay substantially, reducing income anywhere from $400 to $700 over their two-week pay periods. One officer said his paycheck dropped from $1,800 to $1,200.

"I'm getting stressed out because I might lose my house," he said.

The police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 168, filed a grievance March 13 asking for a portion of that built-in overtime to be restored. Officers say they did not bargain over the reduction of that portion of overtime.

Management refused to reinstate the overtime; the union is appealing.

In a statement, Joint Base spokeswoman Angel Lopez said the shift changes will save about $1 million in overtime pay. "More importantly, the 12-hour shifts have always been a concern from a personal fitness and readiness standpoint," she said.

As a result of across-the-board spending cuts in Washington known as sequestration, which took effect March 1, the federal officers will also be furloughed 14 days this year.

"We are extremely aware of the effect this will have on our civilian employees," Lopez said. She added that Air Mobility Command has granted some exemptions from furlough "to mitigate the impact" on police.

Tensions flared again March 12, when a senior civilian administrative official at the base grabbed an FOP member during a training session in an auditorium. After seeing the member using his cellphone, Major Gary Kelly "fully grasped" his left shoulder "in an aggressive manner with his right hand squeezing and pushing down," according to a statement filed by the officer with management.

Danny Schick, a staff representative of the FOP of N.J. Labor Council, which represents the union, said Thursday that the base has not allowed the officer to file criminal assault charges.

The labor council has threatened to take the issue to the base's superiors in Illinois.

In an e-mail to The Inquirer, the FOP member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the incident compounded anxiety over the paycut and looming furloughs. "Not only do I fear for my physical well-being but I fear for the future of my job in a department that has tolerance for workplace violence of this magnitude," he wrote.

In a statement, Lopez, the base spokeswoman, said the allegations were "thoroughly investigated and found to be unsubstantiated."

Her statement added that the base "values each of our service members and civilian employees and takes any accusations of misconduct seriously."

Officers also allege that management has repeatedly violated their union's contract by failing on several occasions to notify officers in a timely manner that they were under investigation for alleged misconduct. Another grievance concerns management's mandate that the officers remove from their uniforms the gold stripes that the officers say help identify them as police.

Another grievance alleged that the civilian officers were not compensated while on military leave.

In one instance, after a police officer felt that Lt. Bonnie Graham Morris, a supervisor, had treated him in a "humiliating" and "demeaning" manner, he requested that she be retrained in two courses: "The Anatomy of Distrust: When Trust is Broken in the Workplace, Guidelines for Managing Others," and "Workplace Harassment (Sexual/Non-sexual)."

The base said it investigated the incident but declined to comment on any further actions taken, citing the Privacy Act.

"The Joint Base has taken a position of, even though we have a contract signed by the base and approved, they are disregarding and making changes without sitting down and negotiating those changes with the union," said Schick, of the labor council. "The situation down there is going down hill fast."

A few days after The Inquirer first contacted the base, officers said they were approached by a miliary official to discuss any problems they had.

The message the official sent, one officer said, was clear: "If you don't like it, just go get another job."

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