C.S.E.A. Union to Vote on Contract

Aware of tough times, president says ‘we’re trying to do the right thing’

    Members of East Hampton Town’s Civil Service Employees Association union are to vote today on ratification of a proposed contract with the town.
    The town employees have been working without a contract since the start of 2011, and negotiations between the union and Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, who has maintained a tough stance on cost-cutting and trimming back the work force, have stretched on since March.
    According to Heath Liebman, the union president, “This was the best contract we can negotiate from this administration at this time.”
    A total of 54 jobs have been eliminated since last year, including 18 positions that were included in last year’s budget but remained vacant pursuant to a hiring freeze and 34 positions that were held by employees who availed themselves of a state early retirement incentive last fall, in some cases opting for that choice rather than risk being laid off. Two employees were laid off.
    Details of the proposed new union agreement have not been released, as negotiations will continue if the contract is not ratified.
    Mr. Liebman said Tuesday that at a meeting of the C.S.E.A. that night, he would describe for the members “what the atmosphere during the negotiations was,” and “the efforts made by the negotiating team, which worked on addressing areas of the contract that we believed needed to be addressed.”
    He said the union was aware of the economic pressures and the need to cut town government costs, as well as the Wilkinson administration’s efforts to right town finances in the wake of a $27.2 million deficit, and had taken those factors into account. “We’re trying to do the right thing; we’re your neighbors,” he said.
    Mr. Liebman noted that the pulse of national opinion seems to have swayed from the anti-union efforts by Midwest politicians to a focus now on protecting the rights of the middle class, emphasized by the Occupy Wall Street protestors.
    A new contract between the town and its union workers is expected to address a 1-percent wage increase that, Mr. Liebman said, should have been paid to employees since January, according to union rules that come into play when employees are working without a contract. The town has refused to institute the salary increase. In the union’s view, Mr. Liebman said, that violates contractual agreements.
    Len Bernard, the town budget officer, said yesterday that Vince Toomey, the town’s labor attorney, had suggested holding back the 1 percent. “In his opinion, it’s arguable,” Mr. Bernard said. “We have an opinion from our attorney saying that it’s something that could certainly go to a mediator.”
    He said that money for retroactive pay, to cover the terms of a final contract covering 2011 and beyond, has been set aside.
    The employees’ association has expressed its concern over the past year about the stance taken by the town administration toward its workers, especially in light of its vow to cut the work force, and recently endorsed Mr. Wilkinson’s Democratic opponent in this year’s election, Zach Cohen, and his Democratic running mates for town board.
    Last year, when presented with a letter from Mr. Wilkinson announcing the state early retirement program, which called the incentive “an important voluntary measure to help the town achieve necessary reductions in staffing and services before potentially turning to involuntary layoffs,” some employees eligible to retire who had not previously planned to stop working opted to do so, partly, some said, to help save others’ jobs. Another consideration was maintaining accumulated pension and health insurance benefits that may have been threatened under a layoff scenario.
    “You should give serious consideration to participating in this incentive given the likelihood that your position may be affected,” the letter to employees said.
    Kevin Maier, a former senior bay constable and 231/2-year town employee who had planned to work until full retirement age, said this week that he had retired last fall under the incentive program even though by doing so he forfeited about a third of the pension he would ultimately have received.
    “It was a very indecent situation,” he said. Mr. Maier applied for unemployment benefits, under the premise that he had quit his job unwillingly but “with good cause” given the threat of layoffs.
    He was initially denied, but earlier this year a judge agreed that the “evidence establishes the requisite climate of fear and uncertainty to create a voluntary leaving of employment with good cause.”
    Although the town argued that no particular positions had been targeted for elimination, the judge cited Mr. Maier’s efforts to ascertain his standing. A lack of information from Mr. Wilkinson, “who refused to talk to anyone, including the other members of [the] board,” according to the written decision, created “an atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the claimant’s job security.”
    The town has appealed the ruling. Mr. Maier received several months of benefits before beginning a new job last spring.
    Another marine patrol employee, Frank Kennedy, who also retired under the incentive program rather than face a possible layoff, applied for and immediately received unemployment insurance benefits. In submitting his resignation last fall, he wrote in a letter to the Human Resources Department that he was “doing so under duress,” and said that he found that, “after 18-plus years of working for the town that this type of treatment is despicable, and possibly age discrimination.”