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PEF negotiates daily to keep you safe, protect your rights

By KATE MOSTACCIO

Source: Times Union Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and Budget Director Robert Mujica outline declining revenue collections for the state on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. (Gov. Andrew Cuomo Flickr)

News broke at the end of September that the nearly 80,000 state workers represented by CSEA would not be getting their contractual pay raises, postponed a third time through at least January 1, 2021.

That is the reality PEF’s contract team faces during the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout.

While formal negotiations on a successor contract may be on hold, PEF continues to negotiate daily on critical health and safety protections for members, as well as maintaining the integrity of the existing PEF contract.

“I don’t think folks realize that nothing ever stopped,” said President Wayne Spence during the 42nd Annual PEF Convention. “I want people to know that we had to pivot and concentrate on saving not just our lives, but the lives of the people that we’re supposed to take care of, and some people might not see it or value it, but we did what we needed to do and we continue to do what we need to do.”

Contract Chair Darlene Williams said all the things important to PEF members – pay increases, the ability to use accrued vacation time, negotiations on doctor’s note requirements, a better dental plan – are no less important now, but the health and safety of members had to take precedence.

“Survival become so important to us on the ground,” Williams said. “Our negotiations on a contract changed for health and safety, to get us to telecommute at home so we could take care of our children or to be able to take care of our parents, to be able to hold onto that vacation time that we couldn’t use. If it wasn’t for our union fighting in a different sort of way, I would have lost the over 320 hours that I have. This is the new normal for us and we are doing our best to navigate through this new normal.”

Mark Richard, PEF’s chief negotiator, said the union is fighting hard and smart, but the state of New York’s economy is in shambles.

“We are in probably one of the worst economic times in the modern history of the country,” he said. “You have an economic crisis of this proportion and you have a health crisis we’ve never seen in any of our lifetimes. When you try to bargain in that landscape, you have got to be smart.”

At the start of the pandemic, PEF shifted all its negotiations’ assets to the safety of its members, obtaining personal protective equipment (PPE) where needed, establishing an agreement for telecommuting and fighting for proper pay rates, among other issues.

“If it wasn’t for PEF, I’m not sure what would have happened,” Richard said. PEF put public and legal pressure on the state to supply members with appropriate PPE and implement safe practices. When members were called back, redeployed or improperly paid, PEF was there.

“Whether it was pressure on the political leaders, going to the press, interviews with editorial boards and newspapers, none of that has stopped,” he said. “Your legal team, they’re all over the place between arbitrations, administrative hearings and, yes, lawsuits over pay issues and safety issues. And all of that is part of negotiations.”

Prior to Convention, PEF reached out to the state once again to get a sense of their preparedness to return to negotiations on a successor contract. The answer has not changed.

“They said if it involved anything economic, a penny more, they can’t do it right now,” Richard said. “We asked are there any other areas we can talk about that are non-economic. They said that they needed some concessions. Knowing there was no money, there were no other raises being given that were already agreed to, and knowing that if we went to the table there were things they wanted back, the decision was made to see how the landscape developed economically and health wise.

“In the meantime, the team marshalled all assets to continue to be PEF Strong,” he said. “The research into the dental plan doesn’t stop, the legal analysis doesn’t stop. We are on the phones with each other and your team moves from one crisis to the next to get ahead of it. That’s been the strategy.”

The time will come for negotiations to resume.

“There will be a moment we believe where the economy and the health situation will be such that we can get back to face-to-face or Zoom bargaining for a successor contract,” Richard said. “Everything else continues to be as it has been, full PEF forward.”

To highlight the importance of the shift in focus, President Spence reminded delegates of what happened in the early days of the pandemic in New Rochelle. PEF nurses, parole officers, members in the Office of the Medicaid Inspector General and in Tax and Finance were on the ground, going house to house testing the community and feeling unprotected. Parolees were still visiting the parole office in New Rochelle, despite the outbreak of COVID-19.

“Of those 12 parole officers, eight came down with COVID and one was intubated,” Spence said. “Fifteen PEF members have died from COVID. Three of my own family members died from COVID. There are PEF members who never stopped working. About 20 percent of PEF membership kept going to work every day and they kept going to work not having the proper equipment.

“I understand that some folks might believe this is over,” he said. “I don’t think it’s over, but I think people need to understand that we’ve never stopped but we certainly set priorities. PEF members were dying. PEF members were getting sick.”

Williams shared a quote from her mother that resonated.

“’The elevator for success in getting us a quick and easy contract is out of order,’” she said. “’So we’ll just have to use the stairs. One step at a time.’ So we’re going to move one step at a time. We’re going to continue fighting on every front, everywhere.”