Contract Team defending your rights, monitoring fiscal, health crisis before returning to the table
By KATE MOSTACCIO
The PEF Contract Team made steady headway on contract negotiations before COVID-19 reached pandemic proportions in March and forced PEF to shift focus from the contract to dealing with emergency health and safety issues.
The union hosted a widely-attended virtual town hall meeting August 18 so PEF President Wayne Spence, joined by staff and Contract Team members, could update the membership on where contract negotiations stand, what has been going on behind-the-scenes since March, and what happens next.
“Although we were not at the proverbial table, we’ve been working daily to protect and fight for our members,” Spence said.
The health and safety of members were the union’s immediate priority as the virus swept through New York . One of PEF’s first moves was to negotiate an emergency temporary telecommuting agreement, allowing many members to work safely from their homes. For essential workers who needed to be in the workplace, the union worked to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) and ensure safe contact measures were put in place for interacting with clients.
“That took some heavy-lifting and prodding and calling out managers constantly in those early days in March and April,” Spence said. “In March alone, we received over 600 emails seeking help. PEF leaders and staff were on the phone and responding to emails seven days a week.”
Fights for members’ rights came in many shapes and sizes. For example, the state wanted to inspect the employee’s home work stations as part of an emergency telecommuting agreement. PEF fought that provision and prevailed.
“They wanted to come and inspect everybody’s home, whether you were using their computers or equipment or your own. They felt they had the right to come and inspect,” he said. Mandated telecommuting being a very different situation than voluntary telecommuting on a case-by-case or agency level, PEF leaders felt the proposal for home inspections was out of line. “We told them to go kick rocks. That was not going to happen.”
Traditional bargaining, sitting across the table and working on contract articles toward a successor agreement, is not taking place right now but that doesn’t mean no work is being done.
“We had to first prioritize health and safety,” said PEF’s chief negotiator, Mark Richard, a lifelong AFT member, professor and attorney who has negotiated hundreds of union contracts over the course of his career. “No one is going to apologize that those had to take priority. I think there is unanimous agreement that safety had to take precedent.”
Richard said PEF approached the issue of contract negotiations during a pandemic the same way PEF members approach their profession – strategically and with precision.
“The fabric of your professions bleeds into the fabric of your union,” he said. You’re highly professional. You’re ethical.
You do your work in a strategic, deliberate way that’s smart and conscious of all elements. You approach bargaining the same way. ”
He said PEF and the Contract Team recognized that direct bargaining at this time would be the wrong move.
“The state had direct instructions that they could not put a penny on the contract,” he said. “They made it clear if you came to the table officially, with [Contract Team Chair] Darlene [Williams] and the team, that they could not put a penny on the table.
“We haven’t lowered our expectations,” he said. “We have had to calibrate them to the reality that we are in the middle of an economic calamity, probably the worst since the Great Depression.”
The team decided to fight on every front available outside of direct bargaining, Richard said. They continue drafting contract language, getting information to use at the bargaining table and working on sunset language.
“They continue fighting, suing, grieving and arbitrating,” he said. “That’s where we’ve been. Bargaining never stops at PEF. File a grievance. Sue the state. You make a call to the Governor or to the head of a department. We bargain every day. Direct bargaining for a contract is only one aspect.”
Richard said other unions that had signed and ratified contracts have not seen their percentage wage increases – but have already felt the sting of their concessions in copays tied to those raises.
“You need to stay smart and fight on every front. The best move right now is to wait until it’s smart to get into direct bargaining again.”
Member questions answered
Staff fielded questions from members submitted in advance.
At the top of many members’ minds was the question: Would there be across-the-board raises in a negotiated contract and, if so, would they be retroactive?
Richard said PEF would “fight like heck” but there was no guarantee in bargaining.
“It is a top priority of this bargaining team,” he said. “They are unwavering in it. I have never bargained in this type of a climate but that is at the top of the list.”
Other members asked if contract negotiations were nearly complete.
Contract Team Chair Darlene Williams said agreements were reached on a number of individual contract articles, subject to signing of a full contract. Those include Article 24 (Labor/Management Process), Article 15 (Professional Development Programs), Article 14 (Quality of Working Life Programs), and telecommuting. Discussions were also underway on longevity, the Productivity Enhancement Program, improving the grievance process, vacation scheduling and accrual carryover, and requirements for medical documentation for absences, among others.
In response to a member who stated she would rather wait for a contract than take major health insurance concessions, staff provided an explanation on potential health insurance copay concessions.
“Any concessions regarding health insurance would be part of an overall package and it would need to be negotiated,” said Debra Greenberg, PEF Contract Administration associate counsel. “That’s something the state is interested in. The state’s proposal to us, like the agreement they made with other unions, ties salary increases into increased copays.”
Greenberg said the state has proposed increasing the most commonly used copays by 25 percent, which would bring the standard office visit from $20 to $25 and increase the ER copay from $70 to $90.
“We haven’t reached a final agreement,” Greenberg said. “Other units have acquiesced to those increased copays and now the raises that were tied to those have been postponed, yet those units are still paying the increased copays.”
Dental insurance has been outdated and inadequate for years, President Spence said, fielding member questions about that benefit.
“We have heard from membership that dental insurance is a significant concern,” Spence said. “We are actively engaged to achieve improvements to the dental benefit.”
To that end, PEF sent out a Request for Proposals (RFP) to major national dental carriers seeking a competitive plan for members.
“The state has failed to put the dental plan out to bid for over 20 years,” Spence said. “They keep awarding the contract to GHI knowing they are not giving us much. We are using this time now to carefully analyze the RFPs we’ve put out.”
Staff said an ideal plan would improve access to network dentists in all areas of the state and include coverage of implants and other enhancements.
Members also wanted to know if the contract would offer more telecommuting options.
PEF General Counsel Renee Delgado reported that the union has been advocating for telecommuting for a number of years, and this pandemic has demonstrated what we have always known – it works. She added that state should build upon the experience we’ve gained, and work with PEF to make it permanent, so that it’s not just for COVID or individuals with school-age children. The union has and will continue to discuss the side-letter in the contract in future negotiations.
Delgado said a great deal of work is also occurring between PEF and the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations to analyze possible alternative work arrangements, compressed work weeks, flex start and end times, and other arrangements that might accommodate the needs of members and their families during and post-COVID.
Members asked if Paid Family Leave (PFL) would be part of a successor contract.
PFL is a fully employee-funded program under state law, Greenberg said, and the topic has been under discussion since the beginning of negotiations.
“The state doesn’t pay anything for it,” she said. “It is funded through payroll deductions. The law did not include public sector employees represented by a union. Instead, public sector employers must negotiate the benefit with the unions. Any agreement would need to be ratified by the entire membership.”
Another member asked if fellow members who were denied payroll steps would eventually get them and if they would be retroactive.
Staff members were quick to note that these performance advances, the steps between hiring rate and job rate, do not “sunset” and that should not have happened.
“No one should have been denied steps after contract expiration and we have not heard of any such problems,” said PEF Director of Contract Administration Rene Shekerjian. “All eligible members should have received their performance advances when they became due.”
Anyone who believes they were due to receive a step and did not should contact their field representative.
Members asked if there would be improvements to the downstate and Mid-Hudson adjustments.
Darlene Williams said downstate equity is important to members and is being addressed during negotiations.
“I have heard stories of people working in Brooklyn and having to travel to Staten Island having to pay for the Verrazano Bridge. That’s $19 for those who are not Staten Island residents,” she said. “It’s a big deal for many who have to travel on bridges mid and downstate.”
Longevity pay is also on the table for improvements, and any member who was previously eligible for a longevity payment remains eligible and receives their payment even after contract expiration, said Greenberg, in response to another member inquiry.
The exception is members who become eligible after contract expiration.
“At the table we are fighting very hard to advocate for full retroactivity of performance awards so that employees who first became eligible after the contract expiration will be made whole once there is a new contract,” Greenberg said. “We are also seeking to eliminate the sunset for newly eligible members going forward, so that in future contracts retroactivity would no longer be an issue.”
Members were also curious about potential layoffs, furloughs or an early retirement incentive in light of the $14.5 billion deficit in the current fiscal plan and $60-plus billion deficit expected over the next several years.
PEF’s Legislative Director Patrick Lyons addressed all three issues.
“At this time, we do not know,” Lyons said of furloughs and layoffs. “What we do know is the state is facing a deteriorating fiscal situation.” He said PEF is working alongside AFT and SEIU to lobby for passage of the HEROES Act, which would provide up to $37 billion in direct financial support to New York state to maintain operations.
In the event the state does implement furloughs or layoffs, PEF has developed legislation to ensure that private contractors would be subject to corresponding cuts in state support. PEF is also working with other labor unions and interest groups to support revenue-generating legislation, such as increasing taxes on billionaires, multi-millionaires and second and third homes valued at $5 million or more.
“It is important to remember we have an economic and public health national security event and your union is fighting to make sure we have the resources that the state can continue to function,” Lyons said.
An early retirement incentive can only be achieved through legislation, Lyons said.
“PEF is the only public union that supports an early retirement incentive,” he said. “However, we do not support an incentive that is not available to all eligible members and the state must backfill any position vacated so the state can continue to reopen in a safe and sustainable way. At this point, there is nothing in process and nothing eminent in terms of discussions. As soon as we know anything, the membership will be advised.”
So what’s next?
A union gets its strength from unity. PEF is calling on its members to show that they stand united by participating in a contract action.
“We need to demonstrate that we are 52,000 true professionals acting together as one,” President Spence said. “We want to send a positive message that we are united, we are one, we are PEF strong, because PEF Does It. I want to make sure Mr. (Mike) Volforte (lead negotiator for New York state) doesn’t forget that we are waiting for our contract.”
Lend your voice to the action by visiting www.pef.org/contract-action and signing your name to a pre-written letter to Volforte.
“We showed up when others didn’t during COVID,” Spence said. “We lost some PEF members who showed up when the state wasn’t ready. They lost their lives performing their duties and the mission of the state.”
Richard said these kinds of actions make a difference in negotiations.
“You have a union leadership that will never give up trying to continue to protect us, to protect our contract,” he said. “One of the things that exhibits that is when the employer sees unity, small actions or big, consistent or just one event, something that says we speak in one voice.”