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PEF protests PEP shut out in 2021

By SHERRY HALBROOK

The state has decided not to let PS&T employees participate in the 2021 Productivity Enhancement Program (PEP), and that is bad news for the more than 4,700 PEF members who now use the program to reduce their health insurance premiums by forfeiting some of their accrued leave.

“It is shocking and disgusting that the state would pull this rug right out from under our members who depend on it to help reduce their health care costs,” said PEF President Wayne Spence.

The union successfully negotiated the program’s extension through 2020, but it has run into a stone wall so far in its efforts to continue that extension through 2021.

“PEF patiently stepped back last spring when the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations said that it needed to temporarily suspend contract negotiations to fully focus on the COVID emergency,” Spence continued.  “We did that in good faith that our members would be treated fairly, and we kept in constant touch to work with the state in resolving critical issues as they arose through the shutdown and to ensure our members’ safety.  This is no way to reward that trust.

“On one hand, the governor has said he recognizes the enormous sacrifice and dedication that our members and other state employees have shown in the face of this deadly pandemic, and on the other hand he now allows his Office of Employee Relations to turn its back on us.  We aren’t turning our backs on New Yorkers who are fighting for their lives in hospital ICUs.  We aren’t turning our backs on New Yorkers who have been thrown out of work and need help getting unemployment benefits and assistance finding new jobs.  Our members are there for New Yorkers, and the state should be there for us,” Spence said.

PEF members depend on PEP and other strategies and programs that PEF has negotiated for them to stretch their paychecks and pay their bills.

Members said they feel this decision by the state is very unfair to them.

“It’s definitely a hardship,” a Region 8 member said.  “I expected to trade four days of my leave to reduce my health premiums.  I’m considered an essential employee and I haven’t been able to get any time off.  I don’t know how I’m supposed to use up four days in the time I have left.

“We lose money as it is, because I’m really earning more than I’m getting credited through PEP,” he said, “but it’s been better than nothing.”

A member in central New York said she budgets carefully, and losing PEP is forcing her to “recalculate.”

“I bought a new home a few months ago and I based that decision on having reduced health insurance premiums through PEP,” she said.  “I’m doubly affected, because I can’t take much time off.  This change makes a huge difference for me.”

Yet another member said he recently married and is adding his new spouse as a dependent on his health insurance.  Switching from a single to a family plan means significantly higher premiums, and he had been counting on PEP to help him handle that added cost.  He also said that he is among the mission-critical employees that have come in to work throughout the pandemic and he has not been able to use his leave.  Now, he feels that his leave will just be lost entirely since he can neither use it, nor trade it.

Members said the PEP shutout amounts to a pay cut for them.  Their days off can’t be used and now the state won’t give them any value for them.  They feel cheated.

“Everyone knows that you don’t go into public service to get rich,” Spence said.  “We go into public service to serve our neighbors and communities, to advance our professions and to try to achieve some basic economic stability for our families,” Spence said.  “Withholding this benefit from our members now, when the price of groceries and other essential items have been sharply rising, is shamefully cruel.  it’s also dishonest on the part of the state, because our members’ contractual right to use their leave is being blocked from every direction.

“If the governor really wants us all to be there for each other and build our state back better than ever, as he says he does, this is a very shabby way to start.”