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County workers seek pay for storm days

ALBANY -- Almost 200 county workers in the Mohawk Valley were told to stay home from work after Tropical Storm Irene closed their offices for several days.

More than two months later, a dispute continues over whether the county or the workers should be liable for the missed time.

Montgomery County officials declined to pay for the missed days, meaning workers had to use their vacation or personal time if they wanted to get paid for up to four days following storms Irene and Lee.

The workers' union, the Civil Service Employees Association, claims they should be paid based on past practice. The union is considering arbitration after county officials rejected their grievance for an estimated $19,000 in lost wages.

"We were told we couldn't report to work," said Jolene Hornbeck, a clerk at the Department of Social Services and a CSEA unit president. She said some workers were turned away at the office door.

Hornbeck missed work Monday through Wednesday after Irene struck on Sunday, Aug. 28, and missed another day after Lee.

She was able to use three sick days and a vacation day to cover for the missed time. She said other workers had to use more of their vacation time.

Union officials believe close to 200 workers with county agencies that include the department of motor vehicles and the department of public works were told not to report to work for several days after Irene. The area west of Albany was among the most hard-hit in the state by the storm, with multiple roads and bridges washed out.

"There was no way these people were getting to work, unless they could walk," said County Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas Quackenbush.

While CSEA officials note that Montgomery County employees told to stay home during a flood in 2006 were paid, Quackenbush said he was criticized then for overstepping his authority. This time he left it to the county board of supervisor' 'personnel committee, which rejected a union grievance this month seeking pay.

Union officials argue the pay precedent was set in 2006 and the committee's action is expected to lead to arbitration.

Though Irene and Lee disrupted government operations around the Northeast, the Montgomery County situation appears to be novel.

Officials with CSEA and the Public Employees Federation, New York's second-largest state employee union, were not aware of their members getting docked elsewhere in the state after Irene or Lee. Local CSEA president Ed Russo said that neighboring Schenectady and Schoharie counties did not charge their employees when they were not able to come to work after Irene.

New York's state workers can get paid when a governor directs them not to report to work during a state of emergency as long as they are not workers deemed essential, such as snowplow operators during a blizzard. Those instances are rare.

Quackenbush said the county is trying to do the right thing and would abide by an arbitrator's decision.

He also noted that county workers are looking for a benefit that many of their constituents in the private sector do not get. He recalled getting docked a day while working for a private delivery service that had to suspend operations after a snowstorm.

"With the times being like they are today, a lot of people are looking at it differently," he said.

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