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EBoard votes for virtual Convention, conducts union business at Zoom meeting

By KATE MOSTACCIO

RETIREMENT WELL WISHES – Pat Coonrod participated in her final Executive Board meeting June 11 and 12. She announced her upcoming retirement from state service and said her tenure on the board was a learning experience. She plans on continuing to be active in Region 8 activities and in PEF Retirees. In addition to her seat on the Executive Board, Coonrod was a steward and a treasurer of Division 263. We wish her the best in her retirement.

The PEF Executive Board met over Zoom June 11 and 12, adopting a temporary policy to allow the board to conduct union business and voting over the digital platform.

“We’ve had some trying times and the last several months have been surreal,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “We’ve had a pandemic that has affected pretty much the entire world and certainly New York has seen the worst of it in our country.”

Spence shared a video thanking members for the incredible work they do.

“Addressing the pandemic, PEF members have stepped up in big ways,” he said. “Some of those members that stepped up lost their lives.” He named seven members who died since the March Executive Board meeting and there was a moment of silence in their memory.

During a COVID update, Spence and staff discussed telecommuting, safe reopening, and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. PEF has compiled numerous resources pertaining to COVID on its website. Members can visit www.pef.org/covid for more information.

PEF has made progress at labor/management tables and is vigorously defending the terms of the contract. Spence encouraged Council Leaders and members to engage with PEF and update the union on what is going on in their workplaces.

In addition to the pandemic, the country has been locked in a period of unrest after the tragic death of George Floyd.

“PEF has taken a position that what we saw on that video is unacceptable,” Spence said. “And that what’s been going on with folks of color and unequal justice is unacceptable.”

Some members have asked why PEF took a position. The best answer was put forth by Region 2 Coordinator Andrew Puleo, who pointed to Article 2 of the PEF Constitution, Spence said.

The Article states, in part, that PEF is bound to serve the interests of its members by:

“Engaging in all such civic, social, political, legal, economic, cultural, educational and other such activities, whether on a local, national, or international level, as shall be consistent with the goals of PEF” and “Exposing and fighting all forms of bigotry and discriminatory practices that tend to deprive persons of their human and/or civil rights.”

Conducting business via Zoom

Due to COVID-19, the PEF Executive Board met digitally in March but was unable to conduct union business since the PEF Constitution requires in-person meetings. A temporary policy amended the Constitution to allow for the virtual platform.

“This policy would enable the work of the union to continue,” Spence said. “We have to take advantage of technology to conduct business during this emergency.”

President Spence was given the authority to determine when a virtual meeting is appropriate. The policy outlined a set of rules that would govern the meetings and set forth speaking and voting processes. Spence went on record to state he would seek counsel with the Executive Council, even though it isn’t required in the policy.

“We’re in unprecedented times,” he said. “There is no script for this. I have consulted the Executive Council numerous times during  this crisis and I’ve gone to AFT and SEIU as well.”

A few members of the board made suggestions to amend the motion but it passed as written.

Budget, renovations report

PEF Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie updated Executive Board members on the PEF budget, headquarters renovations and IT upgrades. She said PEF’s investment in IT allowed PEF staff to migrate to remote work quickly and efficiently.

“Our IT upgrades made remote work arrangements possible,” she said. “They moved more rapidly than the state and had us all working remotely within 48 hours.” Improvements to the website and wiring at headquarters that will upgrade PEF’s audio/visual capabilities are currently underway.

Wilkie said all internal finishes and many materials for headquarters have been selected and/or ordered. PEF headquarters staff will continue to work from home until mid-August for safety and efficiency, Wilkie said.

“There will be new bathrooms and a gender neutral bathroom,” Wilkie said. “There will be all kinds of ecologically friendly improvements.”

The PEF sign on the front lawn will be updated to include a moveable message board for promotional materials. Wilkie said there is a lot of traffic on Route 7 and the signage could prove to be a powerful tool for PEF.

Project spending through March 31, 2020 was $1.26 million. The grand total for both IT and HQ infrastructure improvements over the last and current fiscal years is expected to be $3.75 million.

Board members were asked to ratify the $27.1 million 2020-21 implemented budget. It was crafted keeping in mind six strategic goals – new member conversions; a reasonable contract; expanding statewide member engagement; bolstering political power; fighting privatization; and expanding anti-bigotry and anti-discrimination efforts.

“Some assumptions underlying budget revenues reflect decreased membership trends,” she said. “We did not include any gains assumptions from successful negotiation of a contract. The increases in dues revenue from salaries reflects salary increases over time.

“Overall, we tried to allocate resources to advance our priorities,” she said. “This was developed in the fall and winter of last year. It did not reflect and we did not foresee the COVID-19 crisis. Once we have more clarity, we can discuss revisions.”

PEF membership downward trends are an ongoing concern.

“We’re being challenged in not being able to effectively conduct new member orientations and membership engagement meetings during the pandemic,” Wilkie said. “The overall COVID impact is to be determined.”

Money allotted to regional political action committees (PACs) was carefully examined.

“One of our priorities is building PEF’s political power,” Wilkie said. “How do we do that if there are many candidates in the metro New York area and we don’t have the resources to pay attention to them?”

In allocating money, PEF looked at the members in the location as well as the legislators living in the region. There is also a fund for multi-regional events at the State Capitol in this budget.

Wilkie said adjustments were made in labor/management and health and safety committee funding based on actual expenditures. There are additional expense lines in both categories in the event a committee needs additional funding.

There was no presentation of a contingency budget, but Wilkie mentioned that research and forecasting is underway and Executive Board input is welcome.

“We feel it would be unduly alarmist right now to craft a contingency budget,” Wilkie said. “We just don’t know enough. The sense we have is that the governor does not want to do wholesale layoffs.  If we have a crisis financially we will come back to you with a revised budget.”

In other income, Wilkie said that a 4 percent return on the Earnings (Interest, Gains/Losses) line is conservative and based on results PEF has been seeing. PEF Financial Director Russ Kuon said investments are 70 percent bonds and 30 percent stocks.

“Looking at the stock market doesn’t give you the overall picture,” Kuon said. “Bonds are very conservative. With everything that took place in March of this year, currently we’re up $600,000 for the year. That will go up and down.”

Wilkie said PEF is careful with assumptions and has seen surpluses that have added to the investment funds attributable to cautious budgeting.

Retirements from January to April this year totaled 538, Wilkie reported. That number is typical and there has not been a large spike yet. PEF is monitoring the numbers.

“We are watching the membership and retirement data like hawks,” Wilkie said. “If people get dispirited about where the State’s budget is going, we know that the aging workforce in New York State has options. We have a lot of people eligible to retire and we’ve been researching those trends.”

Due to COVID, Divisions over their max allotment are not being penalized, Divisions Department Director Kristie Furman reported.

“If because of COVID-19, a Division is not doing an event they typically do that takes a large part of their budget, we are not going to penalize them,” she said. Additionally, staff is working with Divisions to offer audits via Zoom.

Budget Advisory & Financial Compliance Committee Chair Brenda Grober praised the budget.

“I strongly support this budget,” she said. “It is balanced and well thought out. I think we are on a good path considering our current status.”

The board also voted to accept the Year-to-Date 12/31/19 Financial Statement and the Fiscal Year End 3/31/20 Financial Statement, and adopted a budget amendment. The amendment covered increased janitorial and security expenses due to key card installation delays; higher than anticipated court transcription costs; and higher than anticipated contribution expenses.

Funds were moved from the advertising budget line to cover these expenses.

“Our budget was very on point,” Wilkie said.

The PEF Relief Fund, which provided health care workers with housing to protect their families from COVID infection, as well as provided members with PPE, brought in $121,557 in donations. For the housing project, PEF spent $308,942 on 3,049 hotel nights for 119 members.

“For hotel expenses we have  been able to get tax-exempt status,” Wilkie said. “We are still getting reimbursements for taxes paid before use of the Relief Fund.”

Overall, supporting PEF members with hotel rooms and PPE cost $358,811, for a net cost of $237,254 after donations.

“It was money well spent to support the lives of our members on the front lines, and we thank the generous sponsors and donors from the ranks of our vendors and members.” Wilkie said.

Wilkie and staff also finalized work on financial policies and guidance for PEF Regional Coordinators.

“A lot of improvement has been made over the last year,” Wilkie said. “We consolidated and modernized policies and streamlined the guidance to five pages with a set of attachments. We really tried to be responsive.”

The board approved the financial policies and guidance for Regional Coordinators after some discussion.

Exploring a virtual convention

As COVID surged in New York, the PEF Convention Committee began to look at what could happen if the Convention, set for Niagara Falls this year, could not happen in-person as planned.

Special Events Director Kim Partridge reached out to the Niagara Falls Convention Center, which had already canceled or rescheduled all events up to July 2020. The center offered to reschedule PEF’s Convention.

“We weren’t ready to make that decision at that time,” she said. “We do have signed contracts, so we would negotiate and try to mitigate the cancellation penalties.  But, there are no guarantees. A month later, things got heavy and we reached out again. Because we didn’t sign 2022 contracts for Buffalo, we proposed rescheduling Niagara Falls for 2022.”

Partridge said the convention center was amenable and the hotels eventually came around to the idea, giving PEF the ability to transfer all of this year’s reservations to 2022 with no penalties and at this year’s rates.

“I don’t think we could ask for anything more,” she said. “It is the best possible outcome.”

The committee asked for an informal survey of Executive Board members to see if there was interest and support for holding the 2020 Convention virtually.

“There is a lot involved in Convention,” Partridge said. “The big concern is that things are normalizing but there is that possibility of a second wave in the fall. If that was the case, it would be difficult to shift gears at that point to put on Convention virtually.”

Partridge said this is an apportionment year and meeting demands are higher than non-apportionment years. The amount of work that goes into virtual meetings is more than meets the eye and it takes a lot of planning and staffing.

“We have spent hours every day with staff from MIS and the Executive Offices over the past few weeks to have Executive Board virtually,” Partridge said. “With Convention, with that many people, you start to realize how much work really does go into a virtual meeting. It’s not inexpensive.

“There would not be food, overnights and travel but there are still costs associated,” she said.

She provided a cost comparison of an in-person Niagara Falls Convention and a virtual Convention. In-person would total about $1,000,456 and a virtual Convention is estimated at $364,306 – a difference of $636,150.

With COVID concerns, the committee recommended going virtual.

“We recommend this year a virtual Convention primarily because we don’t know what is coming the next few months,” she said. “If there were a resurgence in the fall we would be in a problematic position.”

There was debate from some Executive Board members referencing the state’s status of reopening. Board member Martin Robinson asked if social distancing were possible at an in-person Convention.

Convention Committee Co-Chair Jeanette Santos said there were no procedures in place for that currently.

“I’m sure that’s something that could be developed and implemented,” Santos said. “But the concern would be would the facility be able to accommodate the social distancing. That would need to be looked into further. In our opinion, we thought of it and that would be a reason why we would want to have this virtually.”

The survey questions, “Do you support a virtual Convention in 2020?” and “Do you agree that PEF should avoid convening, sponsoring or funding large in-person meetings for the duration of the pandemic during this fiscal year?” were both supported by a majority of the board.

“As soon as we were confronted by COVID we had to look at how the union operates,” Secretary-Treasurer Wilkie said. “We have been talking for months about what this means for EBoard, Convention and membership meetings. We decided to confer with the Eboard to see what you guys are thinking.

“I do not want to incur penalties for a Convention that might not be able to happen in October,” she continued. “I’m not cavalier about the health and safety of our members. We have the opportunity to not lose a dime.”

Executive Board member Scott Dobe asked if EOL would be an issue for a virtual Convention.

“We have been given EOL for all virtual meetings and our understanding is we would not have a problem,” Wilkie said.

The board approved holding a virtual Convention in 2020.

Delegate, Division election changes

COVID social distancing requirements have made regular PEF Convention delegate petitioning problematic. The Executive Board voted to approve a policy to amend the 2020 delegate election rules to temporarily ease petitioning requirements.

“In order for a Convention to be convened, delegates must be elected,” said Kristie Furman, PEF’s Director of Divisions. “The Delegate Committee does not believe it is safe or practical to circulate petitions to run for 2020 delegates and telecommuting makes it difficult to get signatures. This policy would allow for self-nomination and you would not need to get five signatures.”

A form on PEF.org would allow interested delegates to self-nominate. If the number of candidate interest forms doesn’t exceed the number of delegate seats, all those interested would be seated. If there were more forms than seats, a ballot would be mailed containing all names in random order for a vote.

The board discussed the policy, including possible costs of an increase in elections.

Wilkie said that increase can’t be foreseen but increasing delegate numbers would be welcome.

“We should do everything we can to increase delegates at Convention to make our union more engaged,” she said. “I do not have a crystal ball, I can’t say how many more people will come out, but there has been a generally downward trend in the number of delegates participating in Convention. We also need to honor the Convention Resolution calling on us to increase delegate numbers.”

The 2019 Albany Convention was a big drop, Wilkie said. If the self-nomination process did increase costs, Wilkie said, “it’s money well spent if we encourage participation in our union.”

A similar policy to amend the Division elections process during COVID was also passed by the Board.

The policy would temporarily allow self-nomination and remove the required five signatures. Furman said PEF would send out a postcard when nominations are open and then use an online form for nominations.

Executive Board member and Region 5 Coordinator David Dubofsky put forward a member item asking for an amendment to the PEF Constitution removing language requiring 40 percent of PEF membership to return a referenda ballot.

“We were always talking about the membership being able to speak on everything that is going on, but the way our Constitution is currently written the referendum might as well be taken out,” he said. “I got 10,000 members to vote on my referendum but it failed because of the 40 percent requirements. The Constitution needs to be changed if we ever want referendums to have a chance.”

The board debated the proposal.

“It sounds like we would be removing all level of accountability,” said Board Member Jim Deso, in opposition. “Maybe that number is too high, but I think we need to be careful that we have some standard that we should be meeting.”

The proposed amendment did not pass.

Endorsements from PAC

Vice President Randi DiAntonio asked for approval of the Statewide PAC’s slate of candidates for endorsement.

The board approved the following endorsements:

Senate: Peter Harckham, D, District 40.

Assembly: Jeff Aubry, D, District 35; Aravella Simotas, D, District 36; Mike DenDekker, D, District 34; David Weprin, D, District 24; Robert Rodriguez, D, District 68; Al Taylor, D, District 71; Karines Reyes, D, District 87; Demond Meeks, D, District 137; and William Conrad, D, District 140.

Member engagement

New York might have been on pause but PEF was not, VP DiAntonio said.

“We were there, we stepped up and we continue to do so,” she said. “There are many ways we can serve our members and connect with them. This new normal has taught us there are a lot of tools in the toolbox we can use.”

COVID has made in-person gatherings and the usual membership engagement activities harder but members can still hold virtual meetings and PEF has stepped up to serve members in other ways, PEF Director of Organizing Dan Carpenter said.

“Life has dramatically changed for all of us,” Carpenter said. “COVID has forced us to shift gears and protect the safety of our members.”

Carpenter said PEF has worked across the state to come to the aid of members when their agencies failed to adequately protect them, providing PPE, lodging, meals and checking in with them.

“I am honored and humbled by the work we have done,” DiAntonio said. “The pivots we have made to respond to members and to each other during this crisis is nothing short of amazing.”

Guests address the board

President Spence invited State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli to address the Executive Board and provide an update on the fiscal health of New York and its retirement system.

“I know that the shutdown caused us some financial heartache in New York state government,” Spence said. “I know people are concerned with what that means for their retirement and their retirement benefits.”

DiNapoli thanked Spence for inviting him and acknowledged the financial turmoil we are seeing.

“We can calculate the economic damage and it has been severe,” he said. “We saw a big drop in gross domestic product for the first quarter, those two weeks in March caused immediate damage. There have been $44 million in unemployment claims since March. We have paid out $10 billion in New York compared to last year when we paid out $2.1 billion. That speaks to the kind of damage we have seen.”

The Comptroller said we are seeing double-digit unemployment, sales tax is down 24 percent, and tax filings have been delayed.

“Recovery will be a very, very slow one,” he said. “A big revenue for the state is personal income tax. Tax filing has been delayed and $9 billion we would normally get we aren’t getting, it’s delayed. We’re looking at a $13.3 billion shortfall this year.”

He said New York has gotten some money from the coronavirus relief fund but it hasn’t all been drawn yet and they are still determining where it can be used.

The governor has been given “extraordinary authority” to adjust the budget and borrow if the state falls short of revenues projected in the budget, the comptroller said.

“The good news is that at this point the governor hasn’t chosen to implement cuts,” DiNapoli said. “He’s put that off to see what more help comes from Washington.”

Federal help is needed.

“We do need help,” DiNapoli said. “How healthy are state finances? We’ve got a big budget gap that at least for now we’ve been able to manage. But long-term, unless we get more federal help, that gap will be plugged by a combination of cuts and borrowing.”

DiNapoli said PEF’s contract negotiations are in a difficult position.

“It really gets back to that need for more federal help,” he said. “The governor has not been talking about layoffs or furloughs, but the 2 percent increase others [unions] have pending has been delayed.” He advised all PEF members to continue working with and corresponding with representatives in Washington to advocate for federal aid.

The State Pension Fund, DiNapoli said, is strong thus far.

“We went into this challenging time among the best funded state plans in the country,” he said. “Because we’re strong, we can absorb even slight declines in the value of the pension fund.”

The expectation is that 2020 will be a negative year for the pension fund, but he pointed out 10 years ago the fund saw a 26 percent loss and this year would be single digit.

“We expect no more than a 5 percent loss and probably a little less than that,” he said. “In terms of the size and strength of the fund, we have no problem with liquidity or cash on hand. We’re paying out over $1 billion a month in retirement benefits and we have no problem making that payment.”

DiNapoli said the state fund’s money is not all in the stock market, which sometimes fluctuates wildly.

“We have confidence in our asset allocation for the long term,” he said.

With the newly approved enhanced death benefit approved due to COVID, questions were raised about the impact on the fund. DiNapoli said the number of people who qualify for that benefit is small and should not have a significant impact.

DiNapoli answered another common question: Would the state be borrowing from the pension fund?

“No, we would not allow that to happen,” he said. “I’m not anticipating that.”

The state could opt to pay a portion of the pension bill over time if it would benefit the state’s financial position, he said.

“This was done after 9/11,” he said. “It was done after the Great Recession. If there is a big pressure on the state budget, that is a tool that can be used. That is not by our definition borrowing.”

DiNapoli said there is no indication there will be a retirement incentive but if one did materialize, his office is well-staffed to manage it.

PEF international affiliate presidents, Mary Kay Henry of SEIU and Randi Weingarten of AFT, were also invited to address the Board. PEF has worked closely with its international affiliates throughout the COVID crisis.

“We are leading our movement through a moment of incredible crisis and opportunity,” Henry said. “We believe in sticking together to demand representatives in the federal government to keep money flowing to state and local governments. We also have to fight for justice for all and an end to the brutality against black America.

“Whatever our race, background, or zip code, we all want to move through our community not fearing for our lies or the lives of our loved ones,” she said. “Pulling together, we can make America a place where all of us are treated with respect and dignity.”

Like many unions, SEIU saw the government and corporations fail their employees at the start of the COVID crisis.

“When COVID hit, SEIU launched ‘Protect All Workers’ to hold corporations and governments accountable for getting us out of this mess,” Henry said. “We raised an alarm about the PPE shortage. We continued to push elected leaders and keep pressure on corporations and our government with social media.

“Because we’re living in a moment of national crisis it is more important that we bring the strength of our numbers to bear at the federal level,” she said. “We are working to turn up the heat on the Senate to do the right thing.”

Henry urged PEF members to participate in these efforts by calling the Senate at 844-967-2163.

AFT President Randi Weingarten also called out the federal government for failures surrounding COVID response and advocated for social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

“People should have justice. People should have respect. People should have opportunities. People should have freedom,” Weingarten said. “We should be able to put food on our tables, retire decently, earn a livable wage, have decent health care, decent education that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. We should have a voice at work and in our democracy, and we should have a better life.”

AFT purchased $3 million worth of PPE for members in need. PEF received a portion of the purchased equipment (see Region 10 Coordinator Darlene Williams and Weingarten discuss the PPE here).

Weingarten said engaging together and calling on legislators is crucial. She urged members to talk to friends, neighbors and relatives in other states and to urge them to send a letter or make a call to their legislators.

“We have to make sure those heroes on the frontline of COVID don’t get screwed and that we have the funding to reopen,” she said. “Get the pressure up on the Republican Senate to get the funding our state needs.”

Weingarten praised PEF members for their sacrifices and their solidarity during these crises.

“We can do things together that are not accomplishable alone,” she said. “I have watched PEF for a long time. You are together in a way that I’ve never seen, you’re fighting with a strength that I’ve never seen. You care deeply about the people you serve.”

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer said PEF was the first union in his corner when he took office and Senate Democrats stand with workers.

“You folks endorsed me early on and I’ll never forget it,” he said. “We’ve had disease, we’ve had economic depression, and now of course the racial injustice that has infected our society since its founding. Senate Democrats are committed to acting in a bold and strong way.”

He praised protestors for standing up for what they believe in and said we need to pass the Justice in Policing Act.

“It deals with so many of the abuses we’ve seen in law enforcement directed at people of color,” he said. “This is a moment we can get some really strong things done.”

Racial injustice isn’t separate and apart from COVID, he said.

“Why do more people of color die and get COVID?” Schumer said. “Because they have lousy health care. We have a lot of work to do.”

Action from the ground will make a difference in passing the Heroes Act and getting much-needed federal funding, Schumer said.

“We need help passing the Heroes bill,” he said. “If you are a frontline worker, you would get $13 an hour added to your pay. That is really important and we worked with PEF and other municipal unions to make sure that it covered a broad range of people.”

What can PEF members do to help?

“We need more pressure,” Schumer said. He then read off a list of 21 Senators that he called the “pressure points.” “We need you to get friends and family in any of these states to call, write, Tweet their Senators. Pressure from their home state matters.”