At 5:30 on the morning of Aug. 29, 2011, Eddie Russo was on his way out the door, ready for a day of cleaning and maintenance at the county facilities in Fonda, when he got a call telling him to stay home.
The Department of Public Works building was full of Tropical Storm Irene’s floodwaters, as was the county annex building a few doors down Park Street. County officials decided most of the workforce shouldn’t risk a trip, and wouldn’t be all that productive in flooded buildings anyway.
Russo, president of the local Civil Service Employees Association unit, and more than 200 other county workers were told to stay home for as many as six workdays and told they wouldn’t be paid for the lost time. For more than a year, the CSEA fought for that pay, filing a grievance and taking the case to an arbitrator, hoping to retrieve roughly $17,000 in pay.
A decision issued March 8 by arbitrator Jeffrey M. Selchick shot their request down.
“We’ll abide by the arbitrator’s decision,” Russo said, “but I still think it’s wrong.”
He maintained the same line of reasoning argued by the union throughout the case — that a precedent was set during past natural disasters.
When county buildings flooded in 2006, then-county Board of Supervisors Chairman Tom Quackenbush decided to pay all county employees who were unable to make it to work, and to pay those who did work time and a half.
“They paid us in 2006,” Russo said. “Whether they meant to set a precedent or not, they did.”
During a hearing presided over by Selchick, the union argued “a practice that advances the economic well-being of employees is one that can become binding,” saying that being paid while sitting at home because of bad weather is a benefit employees can reasonably count on.
Selchick disagreed with the union for a few reasons. According to paperwork accompanying the decision, there was just one comparable incident — the 2006 flood — and Quackenbush drew criticism for his decision.
During the hearing, circa-2006 paperwork came to light stating the flood pay was “one-time, non-precedent setting” compensation based on extraordinary circumstances.
Since there was only one event cited as a precedent and because Quackenbush’s actions were so widely criticized, Selchick found “it would not have been possible for the union to believe that it had a reasonable expectation to similar treatment in the future.”
And he denied the grievance.
The union did score one small victory in the case: After the floodwaters receded, employees were asked if they wanted to use personal or vacation days to cover the lost time. A doctor’s note was required to take a single sick day, which is not the case in day-to-day county operations.
The arbitrator ruled any employee who wanted to take a sick day to cover flood time but was denied due to lack of a doctor’s note should be compensated.
Though he and the union will abide by Selchick’s ruling, Russo is embittered by the results. Mainly, he said the several thousand dollars the county spent on arbitration and paperwork could have been avoided by a somewhat less official meeting between the workers, union officials and county supervisors.
“We wanted to meet,” he said, “but the board wouldn’t have it.”
Quackenbush, who was chairman during both floods, did not return calls for comment Thursday.
In the future, Russo hopes to get an official protocol for disaster payment in writing to avoid further legal expenses.