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COVID response, Convention, member engagement updates at PEF Executive Board

By KATE MOSTACCIO

The PEF Executive Board met virtually Aug. 27 and 28 to conduct important business of the union, including political endorsements, approval of statewide and federal legislative agendas for 2021, hashing out details of the upcoming 2020 Convention and seating the Triennial Convention Committee.

To start the meeting, PEF President Wayne Spence asked for a moment of silence for PEF members who had passed away since the last meeting, including Mary Plevinsky, who died of COVID, as well as Giurlene Armand, Odel Burke, Fazlul Haque, Heather Hibbert, Charles “Budd” Koss, Franklin Tinklepaugh and Michael DelPiano, former Region 6 coordinator and retiree director.

Health and safety update

PEF Health and Safety Director Geraldine Stella shared some of the latest news concerning COVID-19 public health response, detailed changes in quarantine guidance, talked about occupational stress, and urged members to spread the word about reporting workers’ compensation claims, among other health and safety issues.

The Centers for Disease Control recently rescinded guidance recommending 14 days of quarantine after travel, opening the door for a drop in diligence.

“We have some concerns that people will take that as an indication that they don’t have to take precautions or quarantine,” Stella said. “Gov. Cuomo has issued his own statement on that and New York state is very much still having that requirement for 14 days of quarantine.”

She directed people to check the NY Forward website for a list of states on the quarantine list and for more information about New York’s response to COVID.

“It’s really important for people to recognize that the quarantine is not just for your safety but for the safety of everyone you have contact with,” she said. “New York is requiring it and they are enforcing it.”

Also on the health and safety department’s radar are workplace violence and high stress issues, Stella said. PEF members have been working in airports, screening travelers for quarantine. Members at the State Liquor Authority have been working in the community ensuring COVID compliance at bars and restaurants.

“There are some violence issues if people are upset or angry, they may take it out on the people doing screening or working with the State Liquor Authority,” Stella said. “Occupational stress issues, tension, these are concerns for our members.”

She said members on these kinds of details should have proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and a strong mechanism for reporting incidents or exposure concerns.

Health and safety staff are also monitoring workers’ compensation claims.

“We are asking members and leaders to send us information if you or your workers have a workers’ compensation claim,” she said. “Email us at gro.f1601411678ep@yt1601411678efasd1601411678nahtl1601411678aeh1601411678. We want to keep in touch with those injured members.” In addition, the AFL-CIO is collecting information on denied or controverted COVID workers’ compensation, which may be helpful in fighting for legislation.

Stella also updated the board on revisions to the CDC guidelines on COVID testing, which now advise that some people without symptoms may not need to undergo testing, even if they have come in close contact with someone known to have had the virus.

“The CDC also quietly made a change to their language on testing, saying those who come in contact for more than 15 minutes and within six feet, unless you or someone in your household are at risk, may not need to get tested,” Stella said. “That’s a big change from previous language, and goes against everything those in the Public Health and medical field have been saying. They also added language describing asymptomatic as healthy people. By definition of infection, they are not healthy.”

The changing parameters and less testing could jeopardize employees returning to work. Stella said very strong contact tracing and testing have been vital to identifying and slowing the spread of the virus and people without symptoms account for 50 percent of the transmission.

“Watch out for this at your agencies,” she said. “Contact tracing and testing are integral parts of a COVID plan.” The Wadsworth Lab, where PEF members are on the frontlines of COVID research, has developed a new, less intrusive test using a saliva sample and shorter nasal swab expected to make testing much easier.

Stella gave an overview of where vaccine development stands, with six candidates in phase three of clinical trials between the end of August and the end of September.

“Any availability will have a significant impact on New York state workplaces and our members’ health and safety,” she said. “Normally, trials follow participants for one to two years to look at long-term effects. Right now, there is a great pressure to produce a vaccine so we believe the FDA is likely to use emergency use authorization sooner rather than later.”

Stella said the pressure to develop a vaccine quickly may leave vulnerable populations at a disadvantage.

“There is a limited demographic of trial participants,” she said. “CNN has said there is a low number of blacks and Latinos signing up for the trials even though they are the large percentage of cases. Their participation in studies is lower than expected. We’ll continue to monitor this and report back to you.”

Air quality and filtration continues to be a concern in health and safety circles as workers return to the workplace. PEF Health and Safety is staying up to date on the current discussions and, right now, that’s COVID transmission by small aerosols.

“Small aerosols stay in the air longer than larger droplet transmission,” Stella said. Larger droplet controls can include social distancing, masks and barriers, but aerosol is becoming a larger concern.

“We talked about high efficiency filters and increasing air exchange,” Stella said. “As we talk to agencies, we are finding that not all can handle MERV 13 filters. Agencies are saying they are where they can, but we want to make sure you aren’t getting lost in the filter number fight and forgetting the air exchange.”

According to studies, engineering controls like air exchange, barriers, and ventilation, can increase risk reduction from wearing face coverings from 10 percent to 90 percent.

“There is less risk when you have increased air exchange than when you have just a face covering,” Stella said.

President Spence noted that some agencies are facing more than 50 percent of their workforce returning to the office in the coming weeks, staggered or fully.

“These are all important things that folks need to be aware of and having conversations at the table about,” he said.

Field services supporting members

Statewide Director of Field Services Katie Vorwald reported on myriad issues PEF field staff are tackling, from quarantine leave issues, to scheduling issues, to overtime issues.

Vorwald said members have had to use quarantine leave more than once and have run up again the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations (GOER) guidance allowing for only one use. Federal assistance provides additional assistance – but only if their agency allows them to use it. Vorwald said PEF has filed grievances on the issue.

Short staffing has led to denial of vacation time, Vorwald said. Many agencies are also adjusting schedules to avoid paying overtime. Other agencies are mandating overtime. And still others are mandating overtime but paying it out at rates other than a member’s appropriate salary rate.

Field staff are monitoring the return to work process at some agencies and are fighting for reasonable accommodations for members who need them due to their health, the health of a loved one, or for child care concerns.

“These are labor intensive for us because each is based on individual needs,” Vorwald said. “There is no one size fits all solution for these folks. We have had some success getting reasonable accommodations, largely in places where telecommuting is already available.”

Some agencies are less accommodating or just not giving reasons why they are bringing back their workforce ahead of the Oct. 2 termination of the temporary emergency telecommuting agreement PEF and the state formulated.

PEF continues to advocate for telecommuting wherever possible and is targeting the state Office of Information Technology Services with a ground level grievance campaign as that agency begins to bring some staff back to the office without a solid reason why.

“In our opinion, this is the right thing to do in order to ensure community safety and not lose the gains we’ve made during the crisis in New York state,” Vorwald said. “Additionally, there are costs to bring everybody back to the office.”

Member engagement actions

PEF Organizing staff have been hard at work supporting members throughout New York state, from a rally for COVID pay on Long Island, to continuing mask deliveries, to legislative actions and working with Divisions on how best to support their members and boost morale.

“During COVID, member engagement face-to-face has been challenging,” said Director of Organizing Dan Carpenter. “Organizing is working with Divisions and Division Finance to talk about how best to use funds to promote membership engagement and the union.”

In August, PEF joined CSEA, SEIU and UUP for a multi-union rally at SUNY Stony Brook to advocate for COVID pay for health care workers, who have been on the frontlines of COVID response since the very beginning of the pandemic.

At the height of the rally, nearly 350 union members stood together to urge SUNY to come through for them. Private hospitals on Long Island and in the surrounding area have already recognized the efforts and sacrifices of their employees with COVID pay bonuses and additional vacation time.

SUNY Downstate is circulating petitions calling for COVID pay recognition as well, Carpenter said.

Staff also worked with members at Capital District Psychiatric Center, where short-staffing led to redeployment during COVID. PEF sent a petition out statewide to call for the state to stop redeployments and also for the hiring of the proper staff needed to do the work.

Carpenter said the department is working on streamlining virtual new member orientations and recently held its first one with interns at New York State Psychiatric Center in Region 10.

“Now that we have held that, we are going to build on that success,” Carpenter said. There are plans to create a general video for use across the state but a worksite specific component will still be crucial for orientations.

COVID has made member engagement in the traditional sense difficult or impossible, but PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio said PEF has still been making strides.

“While this whole last six months have proven to be challenging, a lot of it has motivated us to look for creative ways to engage in orientations and member contact,” she said. “We’ve done so many Zoom meetings with elected officials. We’ve done surveys on a statewide basis with Survey Monkey. Technology, while not as rewarding as being in the same room as everybody and having that rapport, has opened up an opportunity for some members.”

Union finances

Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie provided an overview of PEF’s first quarter financial statements, from April 1 to June 30, 2020, which reflect the impact of COVID on the union and union operations.

The income statements show total dues and fees income running at $458,000 over budget, totaling $10.2 million. Wilkie said these results reflect salary step increases, despite worrying decreasing membership trends in recent months, primarily due to New York state’s hiring freeze on any jobs not COVID-related, attrition, and a comparative lack of seasonal employment.

Total expenses were under budget by about $1.4 million.

“We are at about $8.3 million in total expenses,” Wilkie said. “That’s much less than the $9.7 million that had been budgeted.” She cited fewer meeting expenses amidst the COVID-19 crisis as a significant part of the reason for the difference. She added that the Finance team is working closely with Organizing to assist Divisions and Regions with their budgeting for effective outreach to members during disruptions created by the COVID pandemic.

Net income for the first quarter was $1.9 million.

On the balance sheet, PEF’s total assets increased from $22.8 million at the end of the prior fiscal year to $24.2 million at the end of June’s financial statement due to increased investments and fixed assets. Wilkie said PEF’s headquarters renovations and IT upgrades are adding value to PEF assets.

IT upgrades, HQ construction

Wilkie said PEF is living its union values and using unionized workers and firms whenever possible for both the IT upgrades and the construction at PEF Headquarters in Latham.

“We want that unionized, skilled, qualified labor and we are proud to be supporting workers at our headquarters that are doing great work for us,” she said.

Wilkie said PEF so far spent $1.4 million, or about 40 percent, of the $3.4 million in estimated costs for infrastructure upgrades. She noted that the total combined commitment for the IT and HQ infrastructure project is $3.75 million, and hopes to come in under budget.

MIS now has enhanced disaster recovery and business continuity capabilities. As part of the building renovations, a new data security center will afford tighter controls for information systems.

Building upgrades paved the way for much-needed repairs, Wilkie said, presenting a slideshow of photos highlighting aged and damaged areas revealed as construction peeled back layers of the building.

Setting agenda, rules for Convention

There will be 449 delegates tuning in for this year’s virtual Convention and the production company, CMI, is working to develop a microsite where delegates will access all Convention information, meetings and content, reported Convention Committee Co-Chair Jeanette Santos.

In formulating the Convention Rules of Procedures, Santos said the committee looked to the recent AFT Convention held virtually at the end of July.

“Our goal was to make the process as transparent as possible but also using AFT’s strong advice to keep the virtual process as simple as possible,” she said. “It is not an easy task. President Spence has a saying: ‘You can’t build a plane while flying it.’ That is so true.”

The proposed agenda for Convention sticks to business of the union.

“Our primary goal was to identify items that needed to be addressed and build in time to address them,” Santos said.

“We are focusing on things that absolutely need to be done,” said Director of Special Events Kim Partridge. “Although we would really love to do the things we would normally do.” Virtual meetings require a lot of behind-the-scenes assistance and technical support and are quite costly and time-consuming, she explained.

Two more differences this year include orientation sessions Sunday morning, so delegates could familiarize themselves with the virtual platform, and state and federal legislative agenda review and discussion sessions prior to the start of Convention.

Since this is an apportionment year, several blocks of time are set aside for Department meetings.

The Executive Board made adjustments to the proposed agenda, changing committee meeting and legislative agenda discussion times so that delegates could attend multiple meetings. The board then adopted the amended agenda and Rules of Procedures.

Political endorsements

To ensure commonality of PEF goals and many steps prior to receiving a PEF endorsement, each potential candidate is sent a labor questionnaire from local political action committees (PACs) and the local PAC attempts to interview each candidate in person.

This year presented logistical issues and local PACs adapted by using alternative interview methods. Local PACs then made recommendations based on the candidates’ support for PEF policies and previous voting records. The local PAC recommendations were sent to the PEF Statewide Political Action Committee (SWPAC) for review.

The SWPAC reviews all local recommendations to ensure they correspond with PEF legislative initiatives and overall strategy for attaining the objectives of the union.

The final step in the process is the Executive Board vote on whether to accept the SWPAC recommendation. The board adopted the SWPAC’s New York State Senate, New York State Assembly, and U.S. Congressional endorsements with some minor changes.

The PEF Executive Board voted to support the endorsement of Joe Biden for President in the upcoming November elections. There was discussion prior to the vote, with some members arguing for a “no endorsement at this time” position, but ultimately the board sided with the motion to support.

Legislative update

PEF’s Legislative Department continues to monitor the legislative landscape as the state struggles through the economic and public health fallout of COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, the state budget continues to deteriorate,” Legislative Director Patrick Lyons said, noting the deficit has risen to $14.5 billion. “We continue to hammer our federal representatives through membership actions and our national and international affiliates to take up some type of significant action on the HEROES Act. That legislation is going to be critical for us in New York state, not only in terms of meeting our operating needs, but also meeting the needs of our members.”

Lyons said the department has been working on letter-writing campaigns to increase support in both houses for critical legislation that would provide needed aid to New Yorkers. Visit the PEF website’s Political Action page and select the “Legislative Action is needed Today” tab to send a pre-written letter on a number of issues.

Legislation on workplace emergency planning passed in both houses, Lyons reported, and now waits for the governor’s signature. This would include ensuring that future emergency plans require clarity on essential/nonessential designation, details of telecommuting, and would require agencies to secure and maintain PPE, among other details.

Guest attendance

The board also considered the adoption of a policy to allow Council Leaders to attend virtual executive board meetings.

“There are some issues to be considered,” Spence said. “This is a webinar; there is no waiting room. They will enter the queue as a participant and staff will need to make sure they can’t speak or vote. Guests will be Council Leaders only and will not be allowed to use the Zoom app; they will only be able to call in.”

Members rose in favor of the motion, stating Executive Board meetings have traditionally been open to all who wished to attend as long as they notified the board in advance. Others questioned how to accommodate executive sessions with guests in attendance. Some members felt limiting the policy to Council Leaders was too restrictive. Others felt letting any guests in was a slippery slope that could end in unauthorized recordings of board meetings.

The board eventually approved the policy.

Addendum to PEF Retirees administrative agreement

PEF entered into an administrative agreement with the PEF Retirees organization in 1996, formally acknowledging and continuing the relationship between the two organizations.

That agreement requires the PEF Executive Board approve changes to the PEF Retiree Constitution. Retiree Representative Bob Harms came before the board to ask for an addendum to remove that requirement and allow the retirees to make changes without Executive Board approval. The PEF Retiree Board strongly encouraged the PEF Executive Board to approve the change.

Opinions were split. Some members said the two organizations were separate and the retirees should operate as they see fit. Others felt oversight was meant to ensure continuing alignment of the organizations’ agendas.

Harms assured the board the retirees were not looking to distance themselves from PEF.

The board voted to approve the addendum.

Triennial election committee seated

President Spence presented 12 names to the Executive Board to serve on the Triennial Election Committee – Anne Friedman, John Ingram, Kelli Everett, Valencia Metcalf, Ellen Fuller, Marc Smith, Fred Bulmer, Albert Demarco, Chris Lanz, Michelle Maldonado, Debra Konstantakis, and retiree, Angel Cook.

Rules require a minimum of nine committee members and a maximum of 12. Seating a committee of 12 allows for leeway should there be drop-offs or difficulty meeting, Spence said. This election cycle will present new challenges and that was part of the decision-making process when selecting candidates for the committee.

“We looked at their experience in PEF in terms of what they’ve done,” Spence said. “Their understanding of PEF’s mission. We looked at who served in the past. They might be tasked with making major changes in the rules. We might have to do things different due to the pandemic.

“They have had to deal with the Department of Labor and deal with the attorneys when decisions have been questioned in the past,” he said. “They have an understanding of the importance of the work they are doing.”

The board approved the committee by unanimous consent.

Staff recognitions

Three retiring PEF staff members were recognized and thanked for the their service – Jane Briggs, who retired from her post as director of communications Aug. 31 after 8 years; Priscilla Marco, a longtime field representative who retired after 23 years; and Robin Cammans, who retired from her position as a travel administrator/manager after 17 years.

Since the last Executive Board meeting, PEF also saw the retirement of longtime labor management assistant, Nancy Holford, and longtime health benefits specialist, Lorraine Simpkins.

President Spence joins working groups

The American Federation of Teachers, the New York State AFL-CIO, and SEIU, among other union groups, have reached out to President Spence to participate in police reform and social justice reform working groups and task force initiatives.

During the SEIU Executive Board meeting, Spence voiced his opinion when discussion turned to defunding police and that caught people’s attention. “PEF reps over 1,000 peace officers,” he said. Those calling to defund and disband police are not seeing the big picture. “That’s not real,” he said. “That’s not reality.”

“With my experience as a firearms instructor, parole officer and as president of a union, AFT asked me to serve on a committee to address police reform,” he said. “AFL-CIO of New York State asked me to serve on a racial justice task force as the Governor and New York City started making major sweeping changes on what police can and cannot do, and what disciplinary records can and cannot show.”

Contract update: Now is not the time

Echoing the sentiments at the recent tele-town hall, Spence told the members of the Executive Board that PEF’s Contract Team has not returned to the bargaining table with New York state – and for the moment that was the only move.

“There is nothing to negotiate when you consider other unions that had a contract in place, including our own Canal Corp, were asked to temporarily forgo their 2 percent raises that would have come in April,” he said. “The state is in bad shape financially. If we were to go to the table now … the state has nothing to offer us in terms of money but they had concessions.”

READ MORE ON THE CONTRACT IN THIS RELATED STORY