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Public workers on the job during virus, some under creative labor deals

CSEA regional president Jerry Laricchiuta at the NuHealth

CSEA regional president Jerry Laricchiuta at the NuHealth board executive session on Jan. 24 at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow. Credit: Danielle Silverman

As the coronavirus exacts its toll in New York, government officials and public employee unions say they have reached novel agreements to keep the 1.1 million state and municipal workers safe, and financially whole, during the pandemic.

Basic compensation is not in question.

All state and municipal workers — essential employees such as law enforcement officers who are reporting for duty, and employees who have been sent home, whether they have work to do or not — are receiving full pay and benefits under union contracts, according to union and government officials.

But under new agreements negotiated during the pandemic, Nassau, Suffolk and other municipalities guarantee essential workers who contract the virus won't have to use up sick and vacation time.

Municipalities also are exacting concessions. An agreement announced Friday between Suffolk and public employee unions allows the county to postpone increases in longevity payments in order to mitigate the effects of the economic crisis.

Civil Service employees and the Town of Hempstead struck a side agreement to provide essential workers with an hour of compensatory time for each hour worked, capped at a total of 24 hours. Those who work from home receive an hour of comp time for every two hours worked.

Unions such as the state Public Employees Federation still are at odds with government employers over issues such as heavy workloads for workers in health care, and hospitals' payment of premiums to nurses brought in from out of state.

But union leaders and top officials in state and county governments still report unusual cooperation during the pandemic — new behavior for parties who often are adversaries over issues including pay, benefits and work rules.

Michael Fricchione, a spokesman for Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, said the Civil Service Employees Association's “leadership and employees have really stepped up so far to assist our residents during this pandemic."

But "this situation has been and remains fluid while the Office of Management and Budget continues to monitor the County’s fiscal health during this crisis," Fricchione said.

"Both sides agree that it is in everyone’s best interests to wait until there’s a fuller, more complete understanding of the County’s fiscal position, the state of the general economy, and how much money FEMA will be reimbursing the county before discussions take place," Fricchione said.

"Once we return to [a] semblance of normalcy, good faith negotiations with CSEA will resume," Fricchione said.

Jerry Laricchiuta, CSEA's regional president, said union locals are working with governments to keep municipal workers and communities safe.

But he noted the deals are temporary, only to cope with the pandemic.

"Right now we are trying to get through this crisis," Laricchiuta said.

"We have people coming in and really stepping up, without complaining," he said of union workers. "The question will come when we are trying to get back to normal how are we going to protect our workers." 

The new agreements and discussions between unions and governments picked up in early in March, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued strict new work rules for government employees.

Under Cuomo's executive order, “any local government or political subdivision shall, effective March 17, 2020, allow nonessential personnel as determined by the local government, to be able to work from home or take leave without charging accruals, except for those personnel essential to the locality’s response to the COVID-19 emergency.”

The exemption from "charging accruals" enables government employees to continue receiving pay and benefits without having to use comp, vacation, sick and leave time.

In Suffolk, county officials struck a deal with public employee unions to ensure that essential workers who test positive for the virus won't need to use personal, sick or vacation time.

Jason Elan, a spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, said the pact guarantees the workers, "will receive their full salary and medical benefits should they contract COVID-19 without having to utilize their personal, sick or vacation hours.”

But as part of the deal, Suffolk will "delay longevity payments due April, 2020 for a period of six months so that the County can deal with the negative economic and budgetary impacts that have resulted,” Elan said.

The pact will cover the duration of the state's declaration of emergency for the pandemic.

"Our members are on the front lines of this crisis and we had to ensure that their health and safety came first," said Daniel Levler, president of the Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees, representing 6,000 full time workers and 4,000 retirees.

"It was very important that employees weren't being punished and having to use their sick or vacation time if they fell ill," Levler said.

John Wighaus, president of the Nassau County Detectives Association, said police Commissioner Patrick Ryder had put out departmental orders that are “generous” to union members.

Under the orders, COVID-19 is considered a hazard in the line of duty and any union member who contracts the virus won’t be charged sick time, Wighaus said.

Police department officials did not comment immediately late last week.

Also in Nassau, Transdev, which operates and maintains the Nassau Inter-County Express (NICE) bus system, has adjusted work rules during the crisis.

In a deal with the CSEA, bus operators are rotating in and out of active service to reduce their exposure to riders who may carry the virus.

Under the agreement, operators who are not driving may be assigned to help deep-clean vehicles.

Statewide, teachers union locals are working with school districts to provide online instruction and deep-clean and maintain buses and buildings, according to Matt Hamilton, spokesman for New York State United Teachers. The union represents more than 600,000 teachers and school workers.

School bus drivers and some teachers’ aides are delivering free meals for students who qualify for them during the school year, the union said.

Administrative staff are paying bills and distributing paychecks.

And no layoffs or furloughs of union workers are planned, NYSUT officials said.

NYSUT president Andy Pallotta said, "From Long Island to Buffalo, we are seeing [union members] go above and beyond to not only make sure students and their families have everything they need, but to maintain the connections they have built in classrooms, cafeterias, hallways and on school buses since September.”

Until Cuomo lifts his order, public workers will continue in most cases to be paid during the statewide crisis under local agreements.

Nonetheless, there still is friction between governments and public employee unions.

Last week, Cuomo delayed scheduled raises of about 2% for some 80,000 state workers for 90 days beginning the middle of the month.

Cuomo, a Democrat, characterized it as a measure to reduce the fiscal strain on state government — which Cuomo described as “broke” because of lost tax revenues.

While the move was allowed under Cuomo's pandemic orders, it angered union leaders.

“It’s inexcusable to require our workers to literally face death to ensure the state keeps running and then turn around and deny those very workers their much-deserved raise in this time of crisis,” said CSEA president Mary Sullivan.