VT Labor Board Schedules October Hearing On VSEA’s Emergency Closure Grievance

"Jeb Spaulding, the secretary of administration, said the [emergency closure] dispute doesn’t continue to affect the working relationship between the administration and the union."

Article published Jun 12, 2012
State worker double-pay complaint moves to labor board
By Thatcher Moats
MONTPELIER — Neither the Shumlin administration nor the union representing 6,500 state workers has backed down in a dispute that stems from state employees’ demand for double pay for hours logged after Tropical Storm Irene.

Now the Vermont Labor Relations Board will sort through the conflict.

The board sent notices Friday to the parties in the case, telling the Shumlin administration and the Vermont State Employees Association a hearing will be held Oct. 11 in a labor battle that arose shortly after the state was rocked by Irene in August.

The state office complex in Waterbury — including the Vermont State Hospital — was flooded by the storm.

Many employees immediately began working at new locations without being officially reassigned.

As part of the union’s collective bargaining agreement, state workers are entitled to double their regular pay when they are required to work at new locations during emergencies, unless they have been formally reassigned to a new workspace.

In its complaint filed with the labor board, the union says the administration violated that part of the contract and argues workers are entitled to back pay and interest. It’s unclear how many hours or how much back pay is at stake, administration officials said.

In its response to the union’s complaint, the state doesn’t dispute that employees who work during “complete emergency closings” are entitled to twice their normal pay.

But the administration does say the state hospital and the state offices were not “closed” within the meaning of the collective bargaining agreement except for Aug. 29 — the day after Irene — even though the facilities were clearly shut down and still are.

The administration says the grievance should be dismissed.

After Irene, the double-pay dispute quickly grew into a source of conflict between the Shumlin administration and the union.

The VSEA filed its initial grievance in October, and Gov. Peter Shumlin responded by harshly criticizing the state employees seeking double pay in what amounted to a public shaming by the state’s top executive.

The two sides have been at an impasse on the issue since, as the grievance has continued through the administrative process.

“I think the governor’s been pretty clear about his feelings about this,” said Kate Duffy, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Human Resources. “The VSEA has strong feelings about it, and I think we’re just going to let the process work.”

Duffy has already rejected the grievance once, which set the stage for the complaint to move up to the labor board.

The union filed its complaint with the board in April, and the administration filed a response in May.

Shumlin’s strong stance created a rift between some members of the Vermont Democratic Party last fall as pro-labor Democrats in two counties passed resolutions urging Shumlin to cease his criticism of the state workers who filed the grievance.

Jeb Spaulding, the secretary of administration, said the double-pay dispute doesn’t continue to affect the working relationship between the administration and the union.

“We feel we were in the right and that we have a good case,” said Spaulding. “I’m sure members of the VSEA feel they are in the right and have a good case. We have moved by this issue in terms of our day-to-day relationship with the VSEA.”

Nearly 100 state workers were named in the original filing, but as the double-pay complaint has moved through the administrative process, that number has dropped.

Now 59 employees are named in the union’s complaint filed with the labor board.

The VSEA declined to comment Monday.