"The real money is riding on whether the administration will restore the temporary 3 percent pay cut state employees took two years ago to help close Vermont’s budget gap. That could cost taxpayers an extra $9 million at a time when the shortfall for FY 2013 stands at close to $70 million."
"To be clear: Most of the employees asking for double pay are folks who were called into work when other workers were told to stay home. In fact, more than one third of the workers listed on the grievance are Vermont State Hospital employees. Many of them spent days on the road, living out of hotels, in order to care for residents displaced from the state’s psychiatric hospital."
The recent war of words between Gov. Peter Shumlin and state employees isn’t really about whether those who worked at the flood-soaked Waterbury complex post-Irene  deserve extra pay. It’s political posturing in anticipation of the two sides working out a new contract.
Roughly 90 employees have filed a grievance seeking double pay for being called into work during an emergency situation. What that amounts to — less than $1 million — is a pittance compared to the estimated $1 billion price tag to clean up after Tropical Storm Irene.
The real money is riding on whether the administration will restore the temporary 3 percent pay cut  state employees took two years ago to help close Vermont’s budget gap. That could cost taxpayers an extra $9 million at a time when the shortfall for FY 2013 stands at close to $70 million.
Shumlin’s response to the grievance — finger wagging and “dismay” — may be a strategy to get the public on his side as he prepares to hammer the union in private bargaining talks.
To be clear: Most of the employees asking for double pay are folks who were called into work when other workers were told to stay home. In fact, more than one third of the workers listed on the grievance are Vermont State Hospital employees. Many of them spent days on the road, living out of hotels, in order to care for residents displaced from the state’s psychiatric hospital.
According to their contract, state employees summoned to work during an emergency are entitled to hazard pay. For nearly a week after the storm, some department heads and supervisors led many workers to believe the Waterbury Complex would be under “emergency” closure for as long as a week. Then Shumlin retroactively changed the “emergency” to a single day — the Monday after Irene slammed the state.
Some workers were upset by the retroactive change, and union leaders claim they tried, and failed, to work out a compromise with the administration. The union says the Shumlin team ignored its proposals. Shumlin officials deny that. Simply put, the gov asserts the union claim is indefensible and undermines the hard work of hundreds of other state employees during the crisis.
“I can’t express enough my dismay at the 90 state employees who are doing an extraordinary disservice to the rest of our hardworking employees by asking for double time when they don’t deserve it,” Shumlin said last week.
Clever, eh? On one hand, Shumlin praises hardworking state employees for their efforts post-Irene; at the same time, he’s perpetuating the myth that public union employees are greedy and only in it for themselves.
The tension between the union and Team Shumlin is only likely to increase. Why?
All signs indicate Team Shumlin will try to renege on the agreement the union reached with Republican then-governor Jim Douglas to restore the 3 percent pay cut state workers absorbed, and that their contract says will be reinstated as of July 1, 2013.
“As we are in the early stages of collective bargaining, I don’t believe it would be appropriate for us to comment,” said Jeb Spaulding, Shumlin’s secretary of administration.
Spaulding may not want to comment, but the message is crystal clear in the budget instructions the administration issued last month to bean counters throughout state government: The base budget for FY 2013 should not include a restoration of the 3 percent pay cut. In addition, budget writers need to cut more to reduce spending by 4 percent in FY 2013.
“Any changes to these salary levels, including any resumption of step increases, will be subject to state/VSEA bargaining and are not part of the FY 2013 budget,” wrote Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon in a memo to budget writers.
Isn’t this the same administration that spent about $400,000 more than its predecessors on top appointees and cabinet officials? Not sure that qualifies as leading by example.
Most labor unions, including the Vermont State Employees Association, didn’t support Shumlin in the Democratic primary. Instead they backed his challenger, Doug Racine.
The VSEA rallied behind Shumlin, though, in the general election and the governor promised them a seat at the table. He never said it would be a hot seat.
As soon as he took office, Shumlin leaned on state workers to absorb more cuts to help balance the state budget. VSEA members agreed to increase their retirement contributions, take unpaid furloughs, allow more job cuts through attrition and other measures that saved the state $12 million. All the while, the gov refused to raise taxes on Vermont’s wealthiest residents.
For its part, the union remains open to working out an amicable solution rather than let the Vermont Labor Relations Board decide on the double-pay deal.
“I would say that our door is still open if the administration does want to have discussions,” said Conor Casey, VSEA’s legislative director. “We have always preferred discussing issues like these at the bargaining table rather than in the press.”
For good reason, too. Irene is becoming Shumlin’s 9/11. The way the gov’s framed it: As the state rebuilds after Irene, you’re either with us or against us.
Whose side are you on?