By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — After more than a year and a half with an expired contract, the Guilderland Employees Association will participate with the school district in a fact-finder’s hearing the first week in February.
“We’re looking for a reasonable salary increase,” said Thomas J. Jordan, the GEA’s lawyer, declining to name a percentage.
“We’re not looking for the moon,” he went on. “We just want them to be fair, in line with the other units.”
“We have a difference of opinion as to what a raise is,” said Lin Severance, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources and one of its negotiators. “There are raises built into the step structure.”
The district would like to regularize the steps that GEA workers climb each year; she said that the step increases now can range from 2-percent to 8-percent annually. “We’ve even suggested eliminating the steps and giving everyone an equal, fair raise as we do with administrators,” Severance said. The district just negotiated a contract with its office workers that eliminates step increases. (See related story.)
The GEA and the district jointly declared an impasse a year ago.
The GEA’s two-year contract expired on June 30, 2011. That contract took a year to negotiate and, while the union initially asked for 5-percent raises in addition to step increases, it eventually settled on no salary raises.
The GEA, which is unaffiliated, has about 200 members, including cooks and cashiers, food service workers, bus drivers and bus aids, building maintenance mechanics, auto mechanics and
bus garage helpers, custodial workers, and groundskeepers.
It is the district’s second largest union, behind the teachers’ association.
Last Thursday, Jan. 10, the district and GEA met with a mediator to try to resolve their differences.
“The fact-finder came in and talked to each of us to try to find some common ground,” said Neil Sanders, the district’s assistant superintendent for business.
Since no resolution was reached, the fact-finder, appointed by the state’s Public Employment Relations Board, Jeffrey Cassidy, will conduct a hearing, accepting statements from both sides. Cassidy will then make a non-binding recommendation to the school board.
“The hope is, we all want a settlement,” said Sanders, noting the process won’t end until an agreement is reached, and some districts have been at it for as long as five years. “These are difficult economic times,” said Sanders, “and the parties have different perspectives.”
Under the Taylor Law’s Triborough Amendment, school unions cannot strike but, at the same time, their members continue to get the step raises in their expired contracts.
The chief sticking points have been salary and benefits.
Jordan quoted William Young, the president of the GEA, stating that the district has not recognized the hardship placed on its members, especially bus drivers and bus aids, by recent cuts in hours and compensation.
“Many of our people are having difficulty paying their bills because the district cut our bus route hours without giving us any notice,” Young said in a release issued this week by Jordan. He added that many GEA members barely make enough to keep themselves out of poverty.
“There is a widespread perception among district transportation employees that the district does not care about us,” Young said.
The bus-driving job is the sole source of income for many of the GEA members, Jordan said.
“Mr. Young himself lost $4,000 to $6,000,” said Jordan.
“There’s been a significant reduction in the number of hours bus drivers have worked…They changed the kindergarten schedule,” he said referring to the district’s move from a half-day program to a full-day program, “and cut back on the number of routes.”
While some school districts, like rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo, have just a single morning and single afternoon run for the entire district, Guilderland has a three-tiered system — with runs for the elementary level, middle school, and high school, meaning drivers work an eight-hour day. “Who’s going to hire someone for a couple of hours in the middle of the day?” asked Jordan. “They do require a full-time commitment for 10 months of the year, and some work summers, too.”
“The school district has to look at the big picture,” Severance responded, citing the state-imposed tax-levy cap coupled with increased mandates and pension costs and decreasing aid.
As the district has consolidated bus routes for efficiency to save funds, Severance said, “Rather than eliminating drivers, we have returned as many as possible by reducing everyone’s routes a little bit.”
Second, she said, over the last three years, “One-hundred-and-twenty-five people across all 12 bargaining units have lost their jobs. I feel badly for drivers who have lost hours but I feel badly for those who have lost jobs completely.”
Severance concluded, “We’ve tried to be responsible and sensitive to all our employees.”
On health insurance, Jordan said, “Our people have to accumulate 100 sick days before they can get health-insurance coverage in retirement. The GEA is the only unit in the district that has to do that and no one else in the Suburban Council has to.”
Severance responded, “With 12 different bargaining units, there are different conditions to be eligible for health-insurance benefits. In response to school board recommendations, we have sought to increase the 20-percent employees have paid.” The district typically covers 80 percent of health-insurance costs.
“We’ve asked each unit to consider an increase,” said Severance. “If they’re willing to move on that, we’re willing to move on something else.”
Another GEA concern is low morale. “The low morale is due to a combination of things…a lack of compensation and a number of grievances with the transportation supervisor,” said Jordan.
Danielle Poirier was appointed supervisor in February 2012, replacing the long-time director, Christine Sagendorf. While Jordan did not know the number of grievances filed since Poirier was at the helm — “It’s in the double figures,” he said — it is “far more” than under Sagendorf. He also said that at least three grievances had reached the level where the district superintendent gets involved. “With Chris, we settled a lot at Step 1, just talking it through,” said Jordan of the former transportation director.
Jordan asserted workers told Young that Poirier was “intimidating and at times provoking them for no good reason.” An emergency meeting was held in November, he said, and bus drivers and attendants “overwhelming supported a ‘no confidence’ vote against the transportation supervisor,” something Young couldn’t recall happening before in his 20 years with the district.
Jordan also said that, this past summer, Poirier targeted certain employees for drug and alcohol tests.
“We want children to be safe,” he said, stressing the GEA has no problem with the testing required by the state’s Department of Transportation, addressed by a provision in the contract. “You’re supposed to test all safety-sensitive employees,” he said. “The pool she chose was more selective.”
Jordan said he was pleased with the settlement on the matter but declined to give details.
Severance said employees were not targeted. “It was an oversight,” she said, “and was remedied almost immediately.”
Severance explained, “We hadn’t tested summer drivers before. They are responsible for driving children, so why wouldn’t we? The new superintendent brought this to our attention and we agreed.”
Everyone who was driving last summer was solicited, she said, but there should have been random tests as well on others, like mechanics or the assistant supervisor. “It was an immediate fix,” said Severance.
Severance said Poirier brought “fresh eyes” and “best practices” from her previous work to Guilderland.
She went on to respond to the assertion about increased grievances. “It’s very difficult when there is a change in leadership,” Severance said. “We had some practices that may have been relaxed over time….A natural reaction is to push back,” which, she said, took the form of grievances.
“Probably 95 percent of the grievances have been dismissed,” she said. “Probably 100 percent could have been handled in a labor-management committee meeting,” which, Severance said, would have been less costly.
At the conclusion of the GEA negotiations in June 2010, Michael Liegeot, who was then the president, said, “When we first went into negotiations, the times weren’t so bad. It kept getting worse and worse. We were in fear of losing more employees than we already are.”
Under the former four-year contract, mechanics and groundskeepers earned the most, making $15.25 on the first step and $22.39 on the top, 10th step. Substitute bus drivers earned the least, starting at $9.87 an hour and going up to $13.44 on the top step. Food-service workers started at $10.42 and went up to $13.98 on the top step.
In the first year of the now-expired contract, from the 2008-09 school year to 2009-10, the increase from one step to the next was 2.98 percent. In the second year, from 2009-10 to 2010-11, the increase from step to step was 3.03 percent.
Workers on the top 10th step got an increase in pay of 40 cents an hour.
At the time, comparing the pay for Guilderland workers with those in other Suburban Council school districts, Severance said, “We’re just a hair below the median.”
While the school board vote for the contract was unanimous, the union vote was 120 to 60 in favor of the contract.
“Some people said we deserve more,” Liegeot said at the time. “A lot of us thought, ‘We have good jobs and good health insurance, and we’re in it for the kids.’”
Young said that the district started negotiations a year-and-a-half ago by proposing a wage freeze and concessions in health insurance while at the same time negotiating raises for other bargaining units and increases for themselves.
On the wage freeze, Jordan said this week, “There’s been movement but not close to what other bargaining units have gotten.”
In June, after being at impasse, the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, the district’s largest with about 481 members, agreed on a three-year contract with no salary increases, just step raises — 2.4 percent the first year, 1.5 percent the second year, and 1.4 percent the third year. The superintendent, Marie Wiles, has noted that this is less than the teachers would have gotten by working under the Triborough Amendment on an expired contract.
Also in June, the Teacher Aides’ Association, with 47 members, agreed, after an impasse in negotiations, to a three-year contract with step-only increases.
In June, too, the board approved an extension of the superintendent’s contract, giving her a 1-percent raise this year and next while she agreed to pay for 25 percent of her health-insurance costs. She had previously foregone the agreed-upon 1-percent raise.
In September, the teaching assistants, a unit with 137 members who progress up a 20-step system, settled on a two-year contract that gives them a 3.1-percent increase in wages the first year and a 2.9-percent increase the next year.
In November, two three-year contracts were approved for school administrators, granting annual raises ranging from 1 to 1.75 percent. The administrators do not get step increases. One unit has three assistant superintendents who, for two years in a row had forgone raises; the other unit has seven building principals and the special-education director.
This month, a two-year contract was approved for the district’s 60 office workers that has no step schedule but grants raises across the board of about 2-percent.
Jordan concluded his release this week by quoting Young: “There are a lot of great people in this association who really care about their jobs and the important role they have in transporting students safely to and from school. They deserve to be treated better than they have been in the last couple of years.”
Young also said, “I have never seen the morale as low among our members in my 20 years as an employee of the district.”
“I don’t know what more we can do,” said Severance, noting low morale is a pervasive problem that goes far beyond Guilderland.
“When colleagues are losing positions and salaries are decreasing, there’s no doubt people feel financially burdened and sad. Probably every employee in the state feels this way. It’s not the fault of the district the morale is low; it’s the times. People are feeling it in all different directions.”