SCHOHARIE COUNTY — The CSEA Local 848 has filed a labor contract grievance against the county Board of Supervisors after the board voted to suspend employment for 90 of the union’s members without providing them a 30-day notice.
On April 27 the board voted to initiate what it’s calling a “temporary layoff” or “furlough” of 95 employees, five of whom aren’t in the CSEA, with the expectation that they will be brought back Aug. 1.
County officials said suspending employment for the 95 people for three months is expected to save the county $816,605.
Schoharie County Administrator Steve Wilson said the county is anticipating a $4.2 million revenue shortfall in its $92 million 2020 budget due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were looking for a way to reduce costs without actually reducing the wages of employees,” Wilson said. “Early on we indicated our plan, in terms of our overall response to COVID-19, has been to do everything we could to make sure no county employee suffered financially because of this, so for the past eight weeks we have been paying everyone’s salary and their healthcare, as if they were working, even though, on average, about 180 of our total 390 employees have been at home neither teleworking nor working off-site.”
Schoharie County Local President Rick Cain said workers affected by the decision include 40 employees in the county’s Department of Public Works as well as the departments of Mental Health, Probation, Social Services, County Clerk and Emergency Services.
“This is the worst time for vital services to be cut,” Cain stated in a news release, “especially as New York gets ready to unpause. The contract calls for a 30-day notice, but the supervisors decided to broadside workers with the vote.”
The 95 county employees received notice of the suspension of their pay on May 1.
Schoharie County labor attorney Jim Roemer, of Albany law firm Roemer Wallens Gold Mineaux, said the suspension of the 95 employees pay does not fit the definition of a layoff in the county’s CSEA contract because the laid off employees will all continue to receive their health insurance, continue to accrue sick and vacation time, although they will receive at least a three-month loss to their eventual pension benefits. He said it would be more accurate to refer to the board action as a temporary furlough.
“Up until this pandemic, and in the 50 years I’ve been in this business, in the public sector layoff in New York state has been a basic full interruption of employment and benefits,” he said. “The circumstances today that are available under the U.S. CARES Act allow a public employer in New York state for the first time to do something very much different than a traditional layoff.”
Wilson said the additional $600 in weekly unemployment benefits available under the CARES Act should provide either the same compensation or higher pay for anyone making at least $55,000 annually, which would be either all or nearly all of the 95 people furloughed. He said the CARES Act, unless extended, only covers the period of unemployment occurring up until July 31. He said the board also passed a resolution requesting New York state provide pension credit for the three-month period of the furlough.
“By doing this, we’re trying to avoid permanent layoffs later in the year,” Wilson said. “If we had given them the 30-day notice it would have actually cost some of them money.”
Therese Assalian, the communications specialist for the CSEA units of the Capital Region, said viewing the layoff in terms of the benefits available under the CARES Act misses the point of the union’s grievance.
“Our members, some of them who’ve worked for Schoharie County for 30 years, don’t know whether this is going to be temporary or not,” she said. “Our members want to work, not receive unemployment.”
Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Fedrice, the supervisor for Conesville, said he believes most of the members of the county’s CSEA are not unhappy about the furlough.
“I’m not surprised the grievance was filed, but I believe we took great pains to give them a furlough that will, at the very least, leave them whole if not come out ahead,” he said.
Wilson said Schoharie County is also instituting a hiring freeze for between 27 and 31 positions, which is expected to save between $620,000-$690,000 in salary costs and $400,000 to $450,000 in benefit costs by the end of 2020. He said the county is also looking at suspending the purchase of any new vehicles and will likely be forced to spend down some of the approximately $16 million in the county’s fund balance of unspent tax revenues.
Assalian said the coronavirus has led to furlough agreements for some of the other CSEA units in the Capital Region.
“This is happening now, and this is only the beginning,” she said. “CSEA has launched a statewide campaign to encourage outreach to federal officials to urge federal aid to New York state and local governments who are facing severe economic losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.”