Council leaders call for stop to union-busting at Region 1 OPWDD
By KATE MOSTACCIO
An audience of 14,000 was among the first to receive the strong message PEF council leaders in Western New York have begun sharing about union-busting moves by management at several Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) facilities.
Runners from corporations, businesses, financial operations and state agencies came out in force June 13 for the J.P.Morgan Chase Corporate Challenge in Buffalo, where PEF members from OPWDD held “Stop Union Busting: OPWDD Treat PEF With Respect” and Union Strong signs.
“Things went very well,” said Donna Karcz, PEF Division 243 council leader. “There were a number of people that stopped and asked us what we were doing. I did feel like there was some interest.”
Their message then began flooding Facebook as a “Respect” campaign kicked off the following day, with OPWDD PEF members sending in photos of themselves wearing yellow Respect US stickers to show their unity and strength to PEF for posting.
There is plenty to shed light on at the affected OPWDD facilities. “In my division, they’ve tried to intimidate us into signing an MOU on vacation that our members did not want,” said Karcz, a habilitation specialist. “Since we didn’t sign, they’ve been denying time off for members ever since. We’ve had over 50 grievances on the issue now.
“Direct care staff go to work and do not know when they will go home due to continual mandated overtime,” she said. “Members in day services have been receiving time off denials for over 10 months now. The practice of restricting needed time off leaves burnt out staff with no options other than calling in or quitting.
“OPWDD has nurtured and promoted a culture of bullying through these types of practices,” Karcz said. “I feel like these latest things they’ve done are to intentionally try to intimidate the union reps. It’s them amping up their game.”
PEF Division 167 Council Leader Stephanie McLean-Beathley said OPWDD has made troubling changes to long-established policies and principles at her division’s facilities.
“Our release time was taken away,” said McLean-Beathley, a licensed master social worker at Western New York DDSO. Previously, she had been able to use this time to work on union matters, such as grievances. “Now they give us a form to fill out, in essence to track who we are meeting with. We are filling out the form but we are limiting the information.”
Karcz said her release time was also taken away. “They are trying to prevent us from having the time we need to represent our members appropriately,” she said. “They gave us a form they want us to use to track our every movement.”
Where time was once reflected as regular work time, now it must be recorded as employee organizational leave, or EOL, Karcz said. “It’s about tracking us,” she said. In addition, the forms have to be submitted to supervisors for approval, and then to HR for a second level of approval. “HR may put a hold on it until you give them additional information,” Karcz said. “That might scare members.”
“They are making it harder to represent our members,” Karcz said. “It’s a lot of game playing, making life difficult for members and difficult for union reps. When union leaders have challenged the bullying behavior of OPWDD management, management has attacked these union leaders. It’s just very unprofessional.”
In the Finger Lakes region, Leisa Abraham reports the same release time issue. “We had a relationship with Finger Lakes management for over 30 years,” Abraham said. Changing it “came out of the blue with no discussion as to what’s happened and why it’s happened.”
Abraham, Division 259 council leader and PEF Executive Board member, said release time was beneficial to both the union and to management. “We would prevent grievances and problem solve to minimize grievances,” she said. “It was a much more proactive problem solving mechanism to deal with real problems rather than to react and we would hope management could see that access to local union leaders alleviates some problems before they reach a higher level.”
Release time would also be used to work on and write grants for members or to facilitate programs for CEUs with the training department. She said there has been a recent “chilling toward the union.”
OPWDD management has indicated the rationale for the changes to release time record-keeping was brought about by an increase in anti-union activity since the Janus decision last year.
In McLean-Beathley’s division, a change was also made to the labor-management agenda process. “They want us to tell them we have a problem and give them time to investigate it,” she said. “Then we’re supposed to accept their solution and we won’t be able to put it back on the agenda for future discussion.
“It really is a significant change in how things are done,” she said. “I’m really concerned how this can have a ripple effect.” Previously, if management’s solution wasn’t effective, they could return the issue to the agenda and seek another solution. Not anymore.
For Division 259 Council Leader Sarah Martyn, a licensed clinical social worker in Monroe County’s Finger Lakes DDSO regional office, the heat is on high working in the same building as the Human Resources director.
“I feel that because I am a union leader, and I voice my concerns for our members, I’m a target,” Martyn said. “The HR director personally reviews my time and kicks stuff back. I am threatened with the taking of my accruals if she doesn’t ‘approve’ of EOL time I submit. I had a Workplace Violence walkthrough be denied because of a scheduling mix-up, and they want me to use accruals for the visit, although I was at the house and was on state time. It’s an awkward position to be in.
“I want to do my job as a union leader,” she said. “I looked forward to working with management to solve problems and now I feel like they view us as the enemy. We just want people to be safe and be respected. I thought I would have a half time release as there is a lot that goes into being a union leader to support our members. We do not only file grievances and sit for interrogations. We problem solve, we support professionals in doing their job more effectively, we do new employee orientations, we help with benefits and workplace conflicts. Without the release time I take on 50-plus hours a week. It leaves something compromised, my work, my members or my family.”
In her facility, the culture has shifted so much that Martyn was advised to remove PEF items from her space. “I was told to take down PEF stuff and not to wear PEF gear at work,” she said. “When I asked if it was an order, I was told it was not an order. But I was advised to take it down. I was given a verbal counseling, that was really given in writing, for having a line stating ‘council leader’ in my state email signature. This was a routine practice in the past, and I was never just asked not to have it there.”
For Martyn, the situation is stressful. “I walk around thinking, ‘What are they looking to write me up for this time?’” she said. “It’s very disrespectful. I’m shocked at how disrespectful management is to union leaders. They refuse to meet with us regularly, they take our items off Labor Management agendas, cancel meetings without reason and tell us we have to choose which union leader can attend certain meetings although we each represent a division within the region. The situation is very concerning and not good for operations at all. Members are very concerned.”
McLean-Beathley said there was no discussion or dialogue with PEF before these policy changes were handed down. “That goes against the governor saying he’s pro-union,” she said. “When you allow people at the table but you don’t allow them to participate. To me, that’s union busting.”
Karcz called for change at OPWDD. “This is a call out to OPWDD management,” she said, “to stop encouraging a culture of bullying, and work with union leadership to instead set the tone for encouraging an environment focused on worker empowerment, understanding, and empathy.”