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Judge orders N.M. security guards to be put back on job

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A state district judge has ruled that the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez wrongly eliminated security guards at six Human Services Department field offices two years ago and ordered the positions reinstated.

State District Judge Raymond Ortiz in Santa Fe affirmed a 2012 decision by the Public Employee Labor Relations Board that the administration was required by law to negotiate with a state employees’ union before it discontinued the security.

Ortiz said in a decision issued last week that the presence of security guards is “a term and condition of employment and a mandatory subject of bargaining.”

HSD spokesman Matt Kennicott said Wednesday that the department was evaluating its options and hadn’t decided whether to appeal the ruling to the state Court of Appeals.

Security guards were placed at some field offices after a Las Cruces caseworker was injured when she was stabbed in the neck, arms and hands by a client in 1996.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 18, went to the state labor board after HSD – as part of a budget-cutting move to save $150,000 – eliminated guards at Income Support Division offices in Belen, Grants, Moriarty, Ruidoso, Truth or Consequences and Silver City.

AFSCME says the guards – who were contractors, not state employees – were important for the protection of workers who sometimes must deal with emotionally charged situations.

HSD staff “are exposed to a high-risk work environment, as we witnessed in Las Cruces in ’96,” said AFSCME staff representative Joel Villarreal.

HSD argued it had the right to decide where, and where not, to put guards. The decision to cut security at the six offices in 2011 meant that a total of 24 of the 50 field offices existing at the time did not have security guards, the agency told the labor board. Today, with the number of field offices reduced to 35, there are 17 without security guards, according to Kennicott.

HSD, calling it a “relatively insignificant management decision,” also said it decided to cut contractors during the budget-cutting in an effort to preserve the jobs of state employees.

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