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AME 5 percent raise over four years at issue in Suffolk-union deal

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about the

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about the county's budget at his office in the Dennision Buiding in Hauppauge. (Sept. 20, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Members of Suffolk's largest municipal union would get raises totaling 5 percent over the life of a new four-year pact scheduled to be introduced this week in the county legislature.

County Executive Steve Bellone and leaders of the Suffolk Association of Municipal Employees struck their tentative agreement in mid-September. AME workers ratified it late last month, 1,801-1,222.

Union heads tout a no-layoff promise from the county as the key provision, especially because nearly 500 AME workers have been laid off since early 2012 -- many from Bellone's recent closure of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank.

But some members have expressed dissatisfaction over the level of proposed pay increases. The deal would be retroactive to the beginning of 2013, stretch through 2016 and workers would get no raises for the first two years. They would see a 2 percent increase in 2015 and 3 percent in 2016. The terms of the agreement first became available last week.

While Bellone awarded larger increases to county police officers in an eight-year pact last year, Michael Finland, AME executive vice president, called his union's agreement fair. He noted Suffolk's ongoing county fiscal issues and agreements with other municipal workers across the nation.

"In these turbulent economic times, to get a contract with modest wage increases and a multiyear no-layoff clause is exceedingly important," Finland said Friday.

The deal, which will be introduced at Wednesday's Suffolk legislature meeting and could be up for approval as early as Nov. 19, also lowers starting salaries of new hires by between 1 percent and 5 percent compared to current levels, and lengthens the time it will take them to reach the top salary step.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said he believed the deal was something both sides could live with, because the administration is giving up its ability to cut the workforce further, and the union is providing savings through delayed raises and lower pay for new hires.

"It's like any compromise -- neither side gets completely what they want, but everyone still walks away with a fair deal," Schneider said Friday.

But the deal still sparked concerns among many AME members. Before the Oct. 17 union vote, opponents expressed doubts about whether the no-layoff clause would materialize and criticized the size of the proposed raises.

In response, AME president Dan Farrell last month wrote a letter that referred to internal union disputes that scuttled a deal earlier this year between the AME and Bellone that would have kept the Foley nursing home open under private operators.

Foley workers overwhelmingly voted down that agreement, after many expressed doubts about guarantees that employees could keep their jobs for 18 months under private ownership.

"Don't let yourself be drawn into the same type of semantic arguments that led to the closing of J.J. Foley," Farrell wrote. "Members chose to argue about what the document didn't say at the expense of the jobs of many."

County lawmakers appear likely to approve the new deal between Bellone and AME, even if they have some misgivings.

"At the end of the day, the AME negotiating team struck the best deal that they felt they could get," said Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), the legislative minority leader and a leading advocate for union members.

"As an elected official, I will respect . . . the membership's wishes," Kennedy said. "It's just not my place to insert myself into the terms they have negotiated."

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