SCHENECTADY — One city lawmaker is sounding the alarm about the number of grievances and informal complaints being generated from rank-and-file city workers and lodged with management.
But issues are only surfacing from one department, the city’s Office of General Services (OGS).
City Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo said she’s spoken with 20-plus employees over the past several years who are “distraught” over how the city is being run.
Yet they’re afraid to come forward because they fear reprisal, she said.
“They’re afraid for their jobs and afraid of retaliation,” Perazzo said.
Their informal complaints range from a lack of training to performing tasks outside of their job description, said Perazzo, who asked city Mayor Gary McCarthy to probe the department’s leadership last week.
“Something is not right here,” Perazzo told McCarthy. “The amount of disgruntled employees that I hear from indicates something is not right.”
The office, which houses the city’s waste and parks departments, is headed by Commissioner of General Services Paul LaFond.
Records released by the city on Monday at the request of Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas revealed seven formal grievances were filed in 2020 from OGS workers, one of which was withdrawn.
Two of them were group claims filed by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Local 1037, including a complaint about discipline perceived as excessive related to a “funeral that our 5 brothers did not attend.”
Further details were unavailable, and Local 1037 President James Clay didn’t return a phone call seeking comment on Monday.
Additional grievances sought to address shift changes, overtime and sick time disputes and in one case, a termination of a seasonal worker in the waste department.
Of the seven grievances filed in 2020, three were approved and four were denied, including both group claims.
If denied, the union can appeal and ultimately go to arbitration brokered by the state Public Employment Relations Board.
Perazzo said the process can be time-consuming and expensive, and wanted to take the discussion public instead of raising her concerns privately because arbitration has a financial impact for taxpayers.
“When the city loses, we’re not only responsible for our legal costs, but we have to pay the union’s side of the legal costs too,” Perazzo said.
One grievance about a shift assignment dated from Dec. 9, 2019 went to arbitration this year and was settled on Oct. 23 in favor of the union.
“It took almost a year to get something settled which is not typical whatsoever,” said Mike Lyons, district manager for Upstate New York Operating Engineers, Local Union No. 158.
While Lyons said the union has a “pretty good” relationship with City Hall, he said some previous grievances could have been resolved at the negotiating table and didn’t need to go to arbitration.
“Prior to 2020, things we could have worked out at the table were not given the amount of respect that should have been given,” Lyons said. “I’d certainly like to see that cleaned up.”
McCarthy was not immediately able to provide the number of grievances filed in 2018 or 2019, nor arbitration-related costs, on Monday.
McCarthy called Perazzo’s account “one-sided” and said the lawmaker would have a better understanding of the background and complexities of the issue if she approached himself or LaFond before raising her concerns publicly at last week’s City Council meeting.
Some job descriptions have been changed, said McCarthy, and some workers “take positions that I believe aren’t in their best interests over the long term or that of the city.”
“I’m not afraid to make tough decisions and I’m not afraid to make decisions that people may complain about or they feel that they’re somehow inconvenienced,” McCarthy said. “We’ve been very fair to the employees. They have good benefit packages here and I want them to excel and be real leaders.”
Perazzo said there’s no reason to keep discussion tightly-wrapped.
“Why would we talk about this in private?” Perazzo said in a telephone interview. “I’m sick of it being in private.
“There’s never been a lower morale here. There’s a lot of people with a lot of passion for this city and it’s being sucked out of them.”
It’s not the first time the rocky relationship between AFSCME Local 1037 and City Hall has come under scrutiny.
The union was among those that brought bullying and harassment complaints to the City Council several times in 2018.
LaFond didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.