Executive Board discusses COVID, nursing issues and union finances; sets hybrid petitioning rules for Triennial Elections
By KATE MOSTACCIO
The PEF Executive Board met December 3 and 4 via Zoom to decide on a process for Triennial Election petitioning, vote on a revised Code of Ethics and receive updates on issues impacting PEF members across the state, including nursing needs, membership engagement issues, and lawsuits filed to protect members during COVID.
Keeping pressure on the state during COVID
The pandemic is in the midst of a second wave as cases explode throughout New York.
“We are now heading back to where we were in March of this year,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “We are seeing a major uptick in COVID cases. We’re seeing a field hospital being put up on Staten Island. We are seeing again, to our dismay, the total lack of concern for our members. Places like OCFS, DOCCS, OMH and OPWDD seem to be very willy nilly when it comes to our members, and the residents and people that we are sworn to serve.”
Spence called out the state on ignoring common sense precautions suggested by PEF, such as requiring visitors to facilities be tested for COVID prior to entering a location.
“To this day, many of us cannot visit our loved ones who are in nursing homes,” Spence said. “When we asked them if you are going to allow people to visit and enter these congregated facilities why not require the visitor to be tested and have proof of testing before they show up? That fell on deaf ears. We are now seeing the results of that inaction of the state.”
The president pledged to continue pressing the state on safety issues, as well as to take the issue to politicians, send letters to the governor and exert public pressure on the state through the media.
Katie Vorwald, PEF Statewide Director of Field Services & Supervisor of Regions 4, 7, 8, 9, reported high numbers of members contacting the Field Services/Organizing Department.
“The amount of concerns, complaints and other inquiries we have been getting continues to be extremely high,” she said. “It’s just as high now as it was in the spring. We are right back in the thick of it with our concerns for members on emergent life and death health and safety concerns.”
Vorwald said her department is in constant contact with members and management, but there are still agencies that are not communicating common-sense health protections to members.
“Outbreaks are rolling through facilities,” she said, naming Western New York DOCCS, Greene County OMH, Finger Lakes DDSO and parole offices as just a few areas seeing spikes. “The governor required less than 10 people at Thanksgiving but agencies under his direct control do not do everything they can to protect their members.”
Despite evidence that reducing or eliminating office density is the best protection for workers, some state agencies are not taking full advantage of the robust telecommuting policy negotiated between PEF and the state.
“We have been working hard with labor/management and health and safety chairs to advocate for continued telecommuting,” she said. “We’re seeing agencies saying they can’t because of the governor. We keep fighting.”
A lot of work is also being done to assist members in accessing leave benefits, child care concerns, elder care concerns, standby on-call pay, overtime and COVID testing.
“The bulk of the work continues to be around people on quarantine and accessing their benefits,” she said.
PEF Director of Health and Safety Geraldine Stella advised the Executive Board on COVID rates and New York’s micro-cluster zones.
The Micro-Cluster Strategy identifies clusters and the areas around them and categorizes them into one or more color-coded zones with corresponding levels of restrictions based on severity: Red Zones, Orange Zones, and Yellow Zones, according to the NY Forward website. New rules and restrictions directly target areas with the highest transmission of COVID-19 cases and surrounding communities.
“Keeping an eye on those closures is important,” Stella said. “If we are saying a 5 percent rate is going to shut down schools, then we need to be coming up with metrics that we need to shut down programs within state agencies using that same formula. It doesn’t make sense doing remote learning in public schools but not within the prison population.”
Stella said PEF Health and Safety created a checklist and is urging members to start looking at procedures and protocols in place at their worksites.
“Let us know what you’re walking into,” she said. “We’ve had surprising responses from the checklist. It appears people are confident about the types of PPE given, but aren’t getting fit tested for N95s. If that’s the case, contact us. It’s not good enough to say we have PPE for our folks, they have to be prepared and trained to wear it.”
Members can access the “Are The Proper COVID Controls In Your Workplace?” checklist in two ways — Use Survey Monkey to fill out and submit the form directly or complete the fillable pdf form on the PEF website, save it and email it to the PEF Health and Safety Department at *protected email*.
PEF is also pushing to be involved in discussions about vaccine deployment, pandemic planning and testing plans at state agencies. Stella reported that state agencies are now required by law to develop a pandemic plan with input from employee representatives. PEF’s Health and Safety Department created a template and is training statewide health and safety representatives and labor/management chairs to advocate for their members.
So far, PEF has filed three lawsuits to right wrongs against members as they participate in vital COVID response efforts:
• PEF filed an overtime lawsuit on behalf of members who worked COVID hotlines for the Department of Health and unemployment insurance hotlines for the Department of Labor. Members volunteered or were mandated to work extra hours for compensation that was less than their salary grade. The judge has yet to render a decision.
• The union filed suit against eight state agencies that are denying members the right to time off under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. After an unfavorable decision in November, PEF is appealing the case.
• PEF initiated a lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture and Markets where members who worked overtime had money recouped from their paychecks. PEF believes a settlement can be reached in the case.
In addition to these proceedings, the Legal Department is assisting summer teachers at DOCCS facilities who applied for unemployment insurance and are now receiving letters stating they must pay that money back, sometimes threatening referrals to the Tax Department and IRS for failure to do so. No two teachers have been treated the same and PEF is asking any impacted members who haven’t reached out to the union, to do so.
Petitioning for the PEF Triennial Election will begin March 29, 2021, and, anticipating the difficulty interested candidates may face gathering petitions for office, the Triennial Election Committee proposed two petitioning methods to the Executive Board – a hybrid and an electronic-only method.
The hybrid method would allow members to circulate paper petitions and submit those petitions by mail or email to PEF Headquarters. In conjunction with hard copy petitions, this method would also utilize an electronic platform built by a third-party vendor for members to securely log on and electronically sign election petitions for slates/independent candidates.
The electronic-only method would only allow the electronic election platform and would eliminate hard copy petitioning.
Representatives for Educational Vistas, Inc., the vendor tasked with creation of the electronic platform, said members would receive secure login credentials via First Class mail, all submissions would be time and date stamped for ease of auditing, and election rules would be followed for the verification of all petitions submitted.
The PEF Constitution requires petitions be signed by 10 percent of the membership of the appropriate constituency. After debate, the Executive Board voted to approve the hybrid method for 2021 petitioning.
“I believe we did the right thing on behalf of our members,” said President Spence. “With the uncertainty facing all of us due to the pandemic, we want to ensure our constitutional requirements are followed and that we do not violate laws regarding the pandemic restrictions, while also not putting our members at risk.”
Working for our nurses
PEF nurses are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response and the spotlight on health care workers provides an ideal opportunity for the union to push for much-needed changes on their behalf.
“We have 10,000 nurses,” President Spence said. “Some make less than $40 an hour. For the last couple months, they have been working alongside travelers from other parts of the country who are making $100 or $150 an hour. PEF nurses are literally some of the lowest paid nurses in New York and they work right down the street or across the street from facilities where nurses are making 30 to 40 percent more than they are. We are working on resolving and narrowing that gap.”
Working with the PEF Statewide Nurses Committee (SWNC), the AFL-CIO and other nurses unions, the PEF Legislative Department is drafting a proposal for consideration in the State Legislature — the Nurse Employment, Enhancement and Dignity Act (NEED) – consisting of four components designed to attract and retain nurses.
Included in the proposal would be an income tax credit, a nursing loan forgiveness program, an enhanced hazard pay proposal, and preferential admission to state universities and colleges for licensure requirements.
“The challenge here is the monetary resources needed to appropriately pay for these different proposals during the current fiscal crisis,” said PEF Legislative Director Patrick Lyons. “The HEROES Act provides some resources for hazard pay and loan forgiveness for states. These proposals will be contingent on federal aid and increases in state revenue through revenue enhancements.”
Susan Billi, chair of the PEF Article 44 Committee, which deals with nursing issues, has been researching pay disparity to strengthen PEF’s position at the bargaining table.
“If you work for New York City Health and Hospital Corporation, which includes Kings County Hospital, your starting salary for a brand new RN out of school is about $80,000,” Billi said. “That is a state grade 21. City RNs get 20 days paid vacation and pay no insurance premiums. If you work right across the street at SUNY Downstate, the base starting salary is $45,000 a year, or a state grade 14. If you start with the Empire Family Plan, pretax you pay $6,331 for health insurance premiums annually. You start with 13 vacation days a year.
“We are not going to accept this situation any longer,” she said. “The state has failed us.”
President Spence said the SWNC approached him about pursuing recruitment and retention in 2021.
“Nurses across the state have made a decision they are going to change the direction the SWNC is going in terms of priority,” he said. “For the last 20 years, the priority has been safe staffing and we have united with other nurses unions on Lobby Day to talk about safe staffing.
“The SWNC came back and said to me, ‘How can we talk about safe staffing if we can’t recruit and retain nurses?’ If you are a nurse at Downstate, why would you stay when a person across the street is making double your salary, if you consider their fringe benefits?”
Carolyn Cole, chair of the SWNC, said the pay disparity has been a problem since she joined state service 25 years ago and it hinders recruitment and retention.
“The median age of nurses is close to retirement age,” she said. “If we can’t do something now to entice nurses to come into work, we’re going to be in trouble.”
Region 4 Coordinator Bobbi Stafford, a member of the PEF Contract Team and a nurse at SUNY Upstate, says her agency is woefully understaffed despite covering 17 counties.
“I’ve been trying to champion this for several years,” she said. “We are beyond crisis right now. This has been a long, hard fight and I’m glad we’re going to strike when the iron is hot. We have had to bring in 30,000 nurses to work for this pandemic.”
PEF secured geographic increases for nurses, but implementation was rocky.
“We’ve made inroads, step by step, since 2015 on nursing issues,” Spence said. “They are highlighting nurses all the time during the pandemic. It’s an opportunity for the union to use the fact that nurses are in the forefront in the COVID fight and strike while the iron is hot.”
Audit and financials
Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie briefed the Executive Board on PEF’s second quarter finances from July 2020 to September 2020, and for the cumulative totals for the first six months of the fiscal year.
“We are steadily improving our asset position,” Wilkie told the board.
As of September 30, 2020, the total income was $19.9 million and net income was $3.3 million. The union’s total assets, including property, plant and equipment, totaled $25.2 million and total liabilities, including post-retirement and long-term liabilities, stood at $16 million.
Wilkie reported that membership dues were on budget, despite a decline in membership, due to conservative estimates during the budget process.
“Membership counts are in a fairly steady downward trend,” she said. At this time last year, total membership in the PS&T Unit was 51,828, and at the end of September 2020, total membership was 51,022. By the end of October, membership fell to 50,900. Membership remains the same percentage of the total number of people in the bargaining unit, at 96 percent.
Wilkie stressed the importance of enrolling and retaining members in the unit.
“Membership numbers are obviously critical to the survival of our union,” she said. “We have to do everything we can to get a 100 percent conversion rate.”
In Division Finances, PEF is working with Division leadership and Organizing to find ways to effectively spend down accounts, a challenge during COVID-19 when traditional social gatherings and in-person membership meetings are not possible.
“We are being as compassionate and considerate as possible,” Wilkie said. “Many Divisions are over the max, but that money is not lost, it is set aside until funds are spent down consistent with plans. We are not taking away money from Divisions because they haven’t been able to find a way to spend it.”
Wilkie introduced PEF’s new internal auditor, Mike Fratangelo. Fratangelo has 30 years of experience in the field, including 23 years in government as a forensic accountant for the FBI and a fraud auditor for the Department of Health and Human Services. He gave the Executive Board an overview of his auditing work thus far.
“Some common findings are the lack of money being spent by Divisions and the lack of leadership roles filled,” Fratangelo said. “Some of that is due to the pandemic. It’s hard to have meetings, picnics or holiday parties when it’s really frowned upon or not safe to have gatherings. That’s going to be recurring until COVID is set aside and we return to normalcy.”
He recommended outreach to membership to fill vacant leadership roles and suggested conferring with PEF to develop plans to spend down Division funds on behalf of members.
Going forward, Fratangelo plans to audit all PEF Divisions over the next three years and continue to provide one-page executive summaries and memos with detailed findings and recommendations to Division leadership, PEF trustees and the executive team.
Wilkie presented a budget amendment to the board for approval, necessitated by COVID pandemic assistance for members and increased scholarship costs. The amendment results in a net zero change to the total overall budget.
“We purchased masks and helped with emergency housing for nurses and health care workers at the height of the pandemic,” Wilkie said. “We’re starting to get those inquiries again.”
Overall, PEF spent $343,637 during the first COVID surge to meet the needs of members on the frontlines and spent an additional $9,000 on regional scholarships. To offset these increases, the amendment allocated $279,537 from the annual Advertising Expense line to cover COVID crisis expenditures and moved $9,000 for scholarship increases from the annual Membership Meeting Expense line, which includes Regional expenses.
The board approved the amendment.
Construction and information technology upgrades at PEF Headquarters in Latham remain underway, having faced some delays along the way due to COVID, Wilkie reported. The project includes significant building improvements and data security upgrades, such as a new roof, new HVAC systems, scan card access for entry and updated conference room facilities.
Health and safety continues to be the focus of PEF negotiations during the pandemic. While formal negotiations remain on hold, the Contract Team hasn’t been idle.
“The team met December 1 and December 9,” Contract Team Chair Darlene Williams said. “We are committed to meeting once a month moving forward, making sure we are prepared when the state is prepared to return to the table. We are negotiating and advocating for members every day on health and safety, telecommuting, accruals and improvements to the dental plan.”
Williams urged Executive Board members to communicate with their members and seek out new members to grow the strength of the union.
Member engagement challenges
With a pandemic hindering or preventing face-to-face new-hire orientations and a semi-full hiring freeze, PEF is determined to innovate and keep the union’s ranks strong.
“We’ve seen a decrease in PS&T members in the last couple years,” said Director of Organizing Dan Carpenter. “This year, we have seen 3,395 new hires into the PS&T unit. Out of those, we still have 847 active nonmember hires. That means our conversion rate is about 76 percent.”
While not far from last year’s conversion rate of 78 percent at this time of year, the goal is to convert all nonmembers into the union. Organizing staff has been working with Vice President Randi DiAntonio, AFT and SEIU to put together a robust virtual orientation program.
“It’s going to be very important for us to focus in on those 847 new hires that are fulltime, permanent employees,” Carpenter said. “We need to get them signed up. We need to make sure our ranks are strong and full.”
In addition to orientations, the Organizing Department has worked tirelessly to provide membership engagement events across the state, bringing food or food trucks to facilities and interacting with members.
“We have been doing the best we can to get out to members to show member appreciation,” Carpenter said.
PEF created a new catalog to help Divisions spend down per capita monies, featuring ball caps, T-shirts, sweatshirts, calendars, planners and other union-made items available for customization with PEF and Division logos.
Updated ethics rules
During the 2017 PEF Convention, the delegates adopted a resolution providing that changes to the Code of Ethics should be considered to address procedural and substantive matters of the code.
“This work was a major undertaking,” said Ethics Committee Chair Janette Clark. The committee met multiple times, consulted with counsel and circulated draft revisions in the years since the 2017 Convention.
The board debated the revisions and ultimately adopted the committee’s version.
Albany Housing Authority agreement
The Executive Board voted to send the 2018-2022 Albany Housing Authority Tentative Agreement to members for ratification.
The bulk of the deal includes a restructuring of health care benefits, including a phase-out of the Empire Plan, lower premiums for new hires, negotiating a dependent stipend for employees to buy health insurance to cover college students and an extension of the health insurance opt out program into retirement.
With the exit of the Empire Plan leaving only CDPHP as the sole health care provider, in which nearly all active members are enrolled, there will no longer be out-of-state coverage, a challenge for retirees looking to move out of state or for members with dependents out of New York. In response to those needs, PEF negotiated for a stipend of $4,000 per dependent up to an $8,000 maximum to cover buying additional insurance.
The out-of-state issue also comes to play in retirement, leading PEF to negotiate a deal where retirees on Medicare would be ensured nationwide coverage through a BlueShield Medicare Advantage plan. Non-Medicare eligible retirees who move out of the CDPHP coverage area would receive payments of the same amount Albany Housing would pay for the CDPHP premium, that they could then use to buy a plan from the health care marketplace.
PEF also secured clarity on a sleep time provision allowing members who respond to emergencies during the night to flex their time.
There were two notable tradeoffs: the new employee service requirement requires 20 years of service before an employee is eligible for health care and the probationary period was extended from 90 to 120 days.
The next PEF Executive Board meeting will be held March 24 and 25, 2021.