MONTPELIER — The 63 state employees who had sought double pay for their work in the weeks after Tropical Storm Irene have been denied by the Vermont Labor Relations Board, which issued a ruling Monday lamenting the fact that the grievance was even filed.
The Aug. 28, 2011, flood displaced more than 1,500 employees from the state office complex in Waterbury, forcing many to work from off-site locations until the state could secure office space elsewhere. While most employees performed their jobs without complaint, more than 60 claimed that “emergency closure” language in their union contract guaranteed them double pay for continuing to work while their usual workspace was uninhabitable.
On Monday, the labor board said the “emergency” closure applied only to the day of the floods, not the subsequent weeks during which employees had to work from their homes or on the road.
“(D)ouble pay for work performed is required if there is a complete closing for emergency reasons, and an emergency typically would be of a relatively short duration,” the board said.
The board said it doubted that the drafters of the collective bargaining agreement ever contemplated that “double pay for work performed for a complete closing for emergency reasons could extend for the lengthy period of time.” And a ruling that it could, the board said, “would hinder the ability of State departments and agencies to carry out (their) mission to serve the public without an excessive drain on State funds.”
“We will not presume the parties intended such a dramatic impact on public resources absent any indication they contemplated this result,” the board said of the union contract with the state. “This is particularly so given that emergencies typically are of relatively short duration.”
Since the grievance was filed in October 2011, Gov. Peter Shumlin has maintained that the emergency closure lasted only the day of the floods, despite the fact that the Waterbury complex would remain vacant for years. Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding said the state’s legal justification was almost secondary to its ethical considerations, which he said demanded equal treatment for all state employees, regardless of where they happened to work.
State employees headquartered in buildings unaffected by the storms performed heroically in the days and weeks after Irene, according to Spaulding.
“It would be wrong to pay one small group of state employees double for doing their work when so many are doing equally important work in equally tough conditions for regular pay,” Spaulding said Monday. “It’s something that as a matter of principle the state felt strongly about.”
Doug Gibson, spokesman for the Vermont State Employees Association, said in a written statement that “the employees affected by this decision performed services far beyond what was expected of them, often under dangerous and difficult conditions.”
“We are obviously disappointed with the decision and are reviewing it through our internal processes to decide whether to file an appeal,” Gibson said.
The decision comes as the union seeks to resolve upheaval that saw its executive director placed on paid administrative leave last month pending the outcome of an internal probe into alleged misconduct. Mark Mitchell was initially fired last month by the union’s 16-member board of directors but was reinstated days later after complaints about lack of due process.
Grievances brought to the labor board are heard by three of the panel’s six part-time members. The three members responsible for this decision — Chairman Richard W. Park, James C. Kiehle and Alan Willard — said they regretted the issue ever came before them.
“(I)t would have been better for productive labor relations if the parties were able to balance respective interests and informally reach an understanding to resolve this grievance,” the board said in its concluding paragraph. “State managers and employees represented by VSEA made many substantial contributions to meet the needs of the public in the wake of the devastating (Tropical) Storm Irene. It is unfortunate that the dispute involving pay due employees in this matter has festered and has adversely affected the focus on these laudable contributions.”
Spaulding said the state and the union made an honest effort to resolve the issue outside of the hearing room but that talks fell short.
The amount of money the state would have been on the hook for in additional payroll expenses had the union prevailed was not available at press time.
Relations between the Shumlin administration and the state workers union remain strong despite the well-publicized run-in over double pay, according to Spaulding. While the grievance was pending last year, the state inked the first collective bargaining agreement in decades that didn’t go through mediation and fact finding.
“I think the VSEA was doing what it thought it was required to do under its mission, and I don’t think it did poison the relationship between the state and the VSEA,” Spaulding said. “We’re going to have differences of opinion, but it doesn’t mean we can’t work well together.”
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