SCHENECTADY — The city is punching back against an outgoing lawmaker’s claims that the city’s Office of General Services workforce is plagued by low morale.
Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo publicly chastised City Hall in November, contending the number of grievances and informal complaints being generated from rank-and-file workers is a sign of poor management, and that officials need to probe the underlying issues and develop longterm fixes.
Perazzo said she heard from 20-plus employees in several years lamenting over a toxic work culture.
“It’s pervasive,” Perazzo said.
Five formal grievances were filed in 2020 by employees of the Office of General Services workers, which houses the city’s Waste and Parks departments.
Those include complaints over shift changes, overtime and sick time disputes and the termination of a seasonal worker in the Waste Department, among other issues.
But the number is fewer than those filed in past years, including 13 in 2018 and 10 in 2019, according to materials provided by the mayor’s office.
The decline is a sign that relations are improving between labor and management, said Commissioner of General Services Paul LaFond.
“We are working more together with the bargaining unit,” LaFond said.
Part of that process, LaFond said, is winnowing out some issues that while they may rise to the level of legitimate concerns, may not need to be filed as formal grievances.
Of the five grievances filed in 2020, three were denied, one was approved, and another was withdrawn.
Seven of the 10 grievances filed in 2019 were denied; one was denied but acknowledged the need for training, one was resolved within five days, and another was settled through arbitration.
And all but two of the 13 grievances filed in 2018 were denied flat out: One was denied after being settled through a hearing officer, and the other denied following arbitration.
“We deny these because we feel we’re right when it comes to operations and personnel of the city,” said LaFond.
LaFond said it’s not the case that fewer grievances were filed in 2020 because workers assumed they would simply be denied, and didn’t bother doing so.
“It’s more management working with the union now,” LaFond.
Mayor Gary McCarthy said he has an open door policy and union members are welcome to come to him directly with their concerns.
“Union leadership has unlimited access to me,” he said.
AFSCME Local 1037 President James Clay disagrees.
“We haven’t met with them for a while,” Clay said in a brief interview on Thursday. “If they were working with us, we wouldn’t have problems.”
Clay said another key issue is the city subcontracting out jobs, while others remain unfilled.
Morale is low, he said, and employees are reluctant to publicly voice their complaints.
“The guys get intimidated and they don’t want to speak out,” Clay said. “If we speak out, they want to discipline us.”
Two other city Office of General Services workers, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because they’re afraid of retribution from management, echoed those sentiments.
“People don’t file grievances because they’re scared repercussions are going to come back to these guys,” said one worker.
Those repercussions, they said, include being given undesirable work assignments.
“It’s not if it’s going to happen,” they said. “It’s when.”
The main issue, they said, is heavy-handed management.
Another attributed problems to poor working conditions and what they perceived as unfair treatment.
“How can you have morale when you’re nobody?” they said. “You’re just a piece of meat.”
McCarthy said he subcontracts out some jobs as a matter of fiscal responsibility.
“I allocate the work based on the most efficient utilization of public dollars,” McCarthy said at the Nov. 23 City Council meeting when Perazzo raised the issue. “Some of the employees are creative in their interpretation of their contract or their job description and they end up being what I would classify as an underperformer. I can get the work done cheaper, better and faster by farming it out.”
Labor disputes occasionally spill out into the open as part of public posturing by council members, McCarthy said.
Some issues are inevitable, LaFond said.
“You’re always going to have an employee that’s not happy,” he said. “If you can get things done with misinformation, or trying to get a rise out of someone, that’s going to happen.”
McCarthy said Perazzo’s contention that the city has to pay the union’s costs when grievances go to arbitration is inaccurate.
“The rules are we split the cost,” McCarthy said. “Half is paid by the city, half is paid by the union.”
Clay said Perazzo has been a good advocate for AFSCME Local 1037.
“When employees reach out to Leesa Perazzo, she voices everything,” Clay said.
But despite their differences, rank-and-file members and management agree on one thing: The pay could be better.
When grilled by lawmakers following last month’s storm that crippled city streets for several days, LaFond said the city needed to pay workers more to bring them in line with other localities which pay as much as $6 higher per hour.
“If you want to compensate our employees for the work they do and get them to come to work, they’ve got to be paid for it,” LaFond said.