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Nassau County wage freeze upheld by federal judge

The exterior of the Theodore Roosevelt Executive &

The exterior of the Theodore Roosevelt Executive & Legislative Building in Mineola, at sunset on the afternoon of Nov. 20, 2013. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

A federal judge ruled Thursday in favor of Nassau County and its financial control board, upholding the board’s decision in 2011 to suspend raises for about 7,000 unionized county employees.

The ruling affirms a state court decision and probably ends a seven-year court battle over whether the three-year wage freeze violated the unions’ constitutional rights. The freeze saved the county $230 million during the administration of former County Executive Edward Mangano.

The county’s major unions — the Civil Service Employees Association, Correction Officers Benevolent Association, Detectives’ Association, Inc., Police Benevolent Association and the Superior Officers Association — appealed, contending the freeze violated the U.S. Constitution’s Obligation of Contracts Clause, which establishes contracts as binding agreements.

But U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert ruled that, “in declaring a fiscal crisis and imposing the wage freeze, NIFA did not create a “new rule,” but merely exercised authority delegated to it by the [county] legislature in 2000. Such an exercise does not fall within the contract clause’s prohibition.”

In December 2017, Nassau officials estimated that a decision in favor of the unions would have resulted in a payout of about $101 million.

“The court has upheld a difficult decision made by NIFA. The wage freeze reflects the difficult financial challenges facing Nassau County,” County Executive Laura Curran said in a statement.

Any agreement would need the approval of the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority. All the unions are working under the terms of their previous contracts, which expired Dec. 31.

“The court’s decision affirms our long-held belief that the actions taken by the board were valid. This decision also preserves an important tool for NIFA as we continue to carry out our mission,” said NIFA chairman Adam Barsky.

Jerry Laricchiuta, president of the Civil Service Employees Association, Nassau’s largest union, said of Seybert’s ruling: “I respect her decision, but I just don’t agree with it. This wage freeze has been extremely painful for the lowest-paid employees of Nassau.”

PBA president James McDermott, when asked about the decision Thursday, said: “We were just notified and are reviewing the document and will be speaking with our attorneys. At this time there’s no other comment.”

Neither Laricchiuta nor McDermott could say whether they are planning to appeal the decision.

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