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Cuomo willing to tweak PEF union contract

ALBANY -- After a public workers union boldly rejected wage freezes and benefit cuts, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo responded by ordering 3,500 layoffs, both sides are returning to negotiations.

Cuomo told "The Capitol Pressroom" radio show Friday that he would consider reallocating elements of the Public Employees Federation contract as long as the overall cost to taxpayers remains the same. Cuomo, through a spokesman, had previously said the only way to avoid layoffs would be for union workers to ratify the tentative budget they rejected Tuesday. Layoffs are scheduled to begin in about 20 days.

"Nobody feels this responsibility more than I do," Cuomo said in the radio interview. "Are you open to tweaks?" he asked himself. "Of course, I'm open to tweaks. It's 3,500 people. It depends on how you define tweaks." He emphasized that he wouldn't add to the cost of the labor deal or provide the job security union members seek.

"We are anxious to discuss with the governor's negotiators how we can reach an agreement my members are willing to ratify while preserving state services and meeting the savings the state requires," PEF president Ken Brynien said.

On Tuesday, the Public Employees Federation said the contract vote was 19,629 members against the tentative contract to 16,906 in favor. The PEF has 56,000 mostly white-collar workers.

The PEF has said it hopes to make changes in benefits such as health care that could lower the increased cost for the lowest-paid members.

If layoffs happen, pain is certain not just for those workers but also for many smaller communities where they work and live that could see sizable drops in spending. Almost 1,000 of the layoffs would be in jobs located in Albany County, 129 in Broome County, 34 in Chemung County, 115 in Dutchess County, 227 in Onondaga County and 51 in St. Lawrence County, according to an analysis by The Buffalo News.

Cuomo made it clear that to avoid layoffs, the union needs to approve the tentative agreement negotiated over several months and which is similar to other unions' deals. The layoffs would save the same as the wage and benefit concessions Cuomo has included in the current state budget to address a $10 billion deficit from the 2010-11 year.

Public worker unions are protected by a provision in law that continues union wages and benefits even if a contract expires, providing what government officials have long said is a disincentive for a union to settle a contract with concessions.

The Civil Service Employees Association, representing 66,000 state workers, approved a similar contract in June.

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