Maragos: Disputes over firings raise county health costs

Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos, seen at a Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos, seen at a June 2013 news conference, says delays in grievance hearings for fired workers caused the county to pay out $1 million in benefits for a more than two-year period between 2010 and 2012. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos is calling on the county to expedite its lengthy grievance process for fired employees, noting that continuing health benefits for those workers has cost $1 million in recent years.

In a letter Friday to the county Office of Labor Relations, Maragos' chief deputy highlighted the findings of a recent audit showing that 29 county employees who were challenging their terminations as of October 2012 had been waiting an average of 2.3 years for rulings on their grievances.

The annual benefits costs for those employees was $431,664, meaning that over more than two years from 2010-2012, Nassau spent about $1 million to pay for their health care after their firings, Maragos found.

"It seems like an abuse of the system that we need to crack down on," Maragos said Monday in an interview. "Cases appear to just be languishing."

Nassau's union agreements allow for terminated employees to keep health benefits while their challenges are active. Maragos said there are 15 people awaiting an arbitrator's grievance ruling, down from the 29 the Maragos report cited in late 2012.

The current list includes one correctional center employee who was terminated in 2004 and still receives more than $20,000 a year in benefits.

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"Labor Relations has to take the responsibility to have the appropriate parties sit down and come to quicker resolutions," Maragos said. "Things certainly can be expedited."

Nassau County Attorney Carnell Foskey replied that certain factors are outside of his labor relations office's control. He said the union, which files the grievances, must request that it be placed on a hearing calendar. Hearings cannot start if the firing involves pending criminal allegations or civil litigation. Also, all lesser disciplinary actions against an employee must be resolved before moving forward on the action that prompted the termination, Foskey said.

"While remaining mindful of its contractual obligations to the unions, the county will continue to look for ways to speed up the grievance process to ensure a minimal cost to the taxpayers," Foskey said Monday.

Civil Service Employees Association President Jerry Laricchiuta said he agrees the grievance process takes too long. But he said hardship cuts both ways. "Justice is supposed to be swift, and many times the member is reinstated, but it takes years," Laricchiuta said. "You can get fired for next to nothing and end up losing your home or car while you wait."

Laricchiuta said the county's labor relations office does its best with limited staffing. He largely blamed other county departments for, he said, not providing supervisors in a timely manner to testify in terminated employees' hearings.

"They have to speed it up and that's the bottom line -- for both sides," Laricchiuta said.

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