The just-passed state budget, contract negotiations, telecommuting, COVID-19, a retirement incentive, and the announcement of a new multi-year campaign promoting government in the public interest were among the many topics taken up in an April 8 PEF telephone town hall.
What began in January as a nightmare budget proposal filled with cuts and mergers was ultimately avoided thanks to billions of dollars in federal funding and a strong lobbying effort by PEF members and retirees, who sent thousands of letters to legislators.
Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center was saved, but the proposed closing of a total of 200 psychiatric beds for adult patients will go forward – something that PEF President Wayne Spence said was unwise and frustrating.
“The governor said these mental health beds were under-utilized,” Spence said, “but lots of other things were under-utilized during the pandemic and they are not being closed. Bridges and airports were under-utilized, but they’re still open.”
Proposed agency mergers were defeated, including the combining of the state Office of Mental Health with the state Office of Addiction Services and Support. Two of the four juvenile detention centers slated for closing by the governor were saved (Brentwood and Goshen). Unfortunately, it appears that the Office of Children and Family Services may go forward with closing some of its offices that have yet to be identified.
Proposed cuts to reimbursements and other support to state retirees’ Medicare-related expenses were defeated.
One budget battle the union did not win was $40 million in hazardous duty pay for members working at the three SUNY medical centers, but Spence said the union will continue to press for it during contract negotiations. PEF thinks it should apply to all members who were deemed essential and had to interact with the public during the pandemic.
“We showed up. We deserve it!” Spence said.
The state has agreed to return to the bargaining table on April 27 for the first time since the lockdown began over a year ago.
The PEF Contract Team continued its research and readiness throughout the pandemic, including soliciting bids for an improved dental benefit. Emblem Health currently charges the state an extremely high rate to administer that benefit. PEF is committed to negotiating an improved benefit and is exploring bringing the benefit in house through a union-administered plan. Several carriers have submitted bids and PEF is weighing its options.
Telecommuting is another thing PEF wants to change. The current agreement in the contract limits telecommuting to four days per pay period and the union would like to eliminate that. Greenberg said talks with the state have been “productive” on that front. PEF recently persuaded the state to extend the emergency telecommuting program to the close of business on July 2.
PEF Director of Field Services Katie Vorwald asked members to notify their field office if they are called back to work from telecommuting before that program expires July 2, or if they are being mandated to work overtime or out of title.
Members should also notify their PEF field representative if they are required to quarantine and then told to charge leave accruals for that time.
Members submitted questions regarding the possibility of getting a retirement incentive, and the union reported that only New York City will offer such an incentive.
Even if the state had offered an incentive, it would likely not have been available to essential employees and those at agencies with high levels of understaffing, which would include a great many agencies. PEF lobbied for a retirement incentive based on seniority.
The shocking news that shoddy bolts may have been used on the Mario Cuomo Bridge over the Hudson River is chilling evidence of why the state’s use of design-build for construction projects and other state work is a dangerous idea, Spence said. The union was able to defeat the proposed extension of design-build, which allows private contractors to control the inspection and approval of their own work on state projects, to include work at the state Office of Information Technology Systems.
“Greed and profit can outweigh public safety” when private consultants take over public jobs, Spence said.
PEF Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie reported that PEF is working with other unions, groups and individuals to form a powerful coalition to highlight the importance of public service and fight privatization by educating policy makers and the public about the dangers and high costs to taxpayers that it poses. The campaign will also support PEF’s position in contract negotiations.
The multi-year campaign is just getting started, but the first step is asking members to provide essential information about the services they provide to New Yorkers. More information and a campaign sign-up form are available at https://www.pef.org/fundourfuture.
PEF Health and Safety Director Geraldine Stella said that preventive measures to lessen the spread of the virus are still recommended, even as more New Yorkers get vaccinated. Since the primary means of transmission is inhalation of respiratory droplets, masking, improved ventilation and social distancing are among the most effective ways to prevent spread as long as proper cleaning is maintained.
She asked members to notify their steward, PEF field office or the PEF Health and Safety Department if they are asked to return to unsafe working conditions or if staffing reaches full capacity.
As for vaccines, all New Yorkers age 16 and up are now eligible for a shot. Members can sign up for an appointment on the state website or check with their local physician or pharmacy. She also stressed that all the vaccines currently on the market do NOT contain any live virus, so people will not get COVID-19 from a vaccination.
Stella said PEF will host a call in the near future focused on COVID, telecommuting, the vaccine and return-to-work issues.
You can listen to a recording of the Town Hall here.