MONTPELIER >> Jayne King, a court clerk in White River Junction, summarized the experience of court workers across the state succinctly: "We're understaffed and overworked and overwhelmed."
Backed by the Vermont State Employees' Association, judicial docket clerks are seeking a substantial pay raise, but officials from the judiciary branch say they don't have the money.
Pay for docket clerks is so low, the union says, that some need to seek public assistance to support their families. The VSEA also claims that the low pay is a matter of gender equity; the state's clerks are overwhelmingly female.
Tim Belcher, VSEA general counsel, said underpayment of clerks has been an issue for some time, and the union has attempted to get higher pay for the position through reclassification and other means.
The union and the judiciary are currently negotiating the next two-year contract for all judicial branch employees. The two parties are in agreement over a proposal that would provide all employees a 3.7 percent increase in the first year, including an across-the-board raise as well as funding for routine "step" increases, given to employees based on longevity of service. The second year total is 3.95 percent.
The two-year package mirrors the contract for executive branch employees that was finalized earlier this year.
The union has floated another proposal that would be on top of the across-the board raise.
The proposal would bump the docket clerk position from the current pay grade of 15 to pay grade 19. The change represents substantial pay hike for docket clerks and an appropriate compensation for the work they do, according to the union.
Joe McNeil, lead contract negotiator for the judiciary, said the state estimates the union's proposed pay increase for clerks could cost an additional $1.5 million over the next two years, half of which would be paid out each year.
State negotiators say they want a study to determine if clerks are appropriately classified. They would then take that information to the Legislature as part of a discussion about pay raises for clerks.
"We want to do right and be fair to the docket clerks," McNeil said. However, he added, "We don't believe the Legislature is likely to fund an additional $750,000 to the judiciary for docket clerk reclassification without credible evidence that they're misclassified at the present."
Court Administrator Pat Gabel said Wednesday that the current classification system "is in compliance with our contract and with our law."
Gabel said that the judiciary uses the same pay classification system as the executive branch, and takes concerns of gender disparity in pay seriously. She said that the classification system was implemented in part to address those concerns, and the majority of the people on the reclassification committee are women.
"We believe that pay discrimination is wrong and we have safeguards in place to prevent it," Gabel said.
Gabel said when the parties return to the table next month she hopes "the union will see that the increase are "good offers" and demonstrate the judgment of the Legislature."
According to the Department of Human Resources, there are 101 docket clerks across the state, with an additional 10 temps. The judiciary branch says that docket clerks earn an average of $36,171 annually, with a benefits package that brings the total to $56,907.
Vermont's docket clerks are "highly skilled" workers who, in addition to the administrative tasks of managing court paperwork, function as part-paralegal, part-customer service agent, according to Margaret Crowley, a family case manager in Chittenden County and the chair of the judicial bargaining unit, explained recently.
"If you make a mistake you are impacting a person's life, their home, their children, their child support," Crowley said.
Clerks say that they are underpaid and overburdened, which leads to high staff turnover. According to the VSEA, there has been a 23 percent turnover among docket clerks this year.
Gabel, the court administrator, said the judiciary uses a data-driven approach to monitor turnover. Across the judiciary branch, turnover is lower than it is in the executive branch, although initial reports indicate that one court has seen particularly high turnover this year, she said.
Meanwhile, clerks report that training new staff members is an additional challenge. Training is done peer-to-peer — and on top of the clerks' daily workload.
Shannon Bessery, a docket clerk based in Burlington, recalled that in the face of a dramatic rise in cases related to opiates, particularly on the time- and resource-demanding juvenile docket, the administration proposed a plan to hire more social workers and a new judge.
"Yet there was no discussion about who's going to make those schedules, who's going to process those cases," Bessery said. "If you're going to increase social workers, you're going to increase a judge, something's falling in the middle that's missing."
Gabel said that ordinarily when the judiciary approaches the Legislature with a proposal for a new judge, the proposal includes additional staff support. That was not the case with the Shumlin administration's proposal because it came from the executive branch, she said.
Efforts to reclassify clerks to a higher pay grade have won support from several dozen lawyers and judges who say current salary levels for clerks could undermine the integrity of the justice system.
James Crucitti, the presiding court judge at Chittenden Superior Court, says the salaries for personnel in the clerk's office are "unfairly low."
"The judiciary can continue its embarrassing pattern of suppressing pay for its lowest paid employees and run the risk of degrading the Judiciary's service to Vermont or it can recognize the very difficult responsibilities of these positions and pay a fair wage," Crucitti wrote.
Crucitti is one of several dozen judges and lawyers who have written letters of support for the docket clerks.
Others in the court system have said that clerks' offices have made significant errors that have had an impact on cases.
Scott Williams, the Washington County State's Attorney, said he sees "a critical need for a close evaluation" of the clerk's office.
"I've had some very strong concerns about errors, omissions and notice to parties in the Washington county criminal court," Williams said.
In one instance in the last month, he said, a clerk incorrectly wrote down the conditions of release for a defendant, effectively allowing that person to leave prison — contrary to the judge's orders.
Williams said the Washington County Criminal Court would likely benefit from more staff and more resources, but he also sees a need for more oversight to ensure accuracy.
The union says a lack of training, underpayment and high workloads contribute to errors.
The chair of the judicial bargaining unit, Margaret Crowley, said that criticism should be leveled at "the judiciary for failing to provide the training that's necessary for this very important work."
Elizabeth Hewitt is the criminal justice reporter for VTDigger. Email her at email@example.com.