Here’s the story from today’s Hearst newspapers about how lawmakers can’t seem to get it together when it comes to trying to cancel non-unionized state employees’ longevity payments, at least for April.
Cancellation of longevity payments held up
Brian Lockhart, Staff Writer
Legal questions and divisions among lawmakers are conspiring to prevent the Legislature from passing precedent-setting changes to the controversial longevity payment system rewarding public employees of 10 years or more for staying on the job.
A Hearst Connecticut Newspapers report earlier this month on the decades-old, but little-publicized practice of paying longevity bonuses to 35,000 public workers for not leaving for the private sector resulted in bi-partisan calls to immediately halt payments to non-union staff during the budget crisis.
Longevity payments for organized labor are currently part of collective bargaining and many union contracts do not expire until mid-2011, in time for the next, two-year budget.
So the Democratic majority’s latest deficit-cutting proposal, passed by the Senate Saturday morning, canceled nearly $16 million worth of non-union longevity payments paid in three periods — this April and October, and April 2011.
The state House of Representatives has yet to take up the deficit mitigation bill, in part because Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell threatened a veto. Rell wants to curtail longevity payments, but said the Democrats’ deficit-mitigation plan lacked other substantive cuts.
House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, said Monday evening that because of the Passover and Easter holidays, it is less likely his caucus will vote this week.
That would mean, according to the Office of the State Comptroller, lawmakers would miss a deadline to cancel longevity payments due in the April 23 paychecks.
“We have notified the Legislature that our deadline for pulling the payments would be April 2,” Steven Jensen, a spokesman for the comptroller, said.
But there are other complicating issues at play besides a gubernatorial veto.
Donovan said some have questioned the fairness of suddenly canceling the April bonuses for nonunion workers and whether the decision could be challenged in court.
“There were concerns about people planning to get it and this would no longer be there, as opposed to something a little further down the line,” Donovan said.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said he does not have a problem allowing April’s longevity bonuses if those due in October and April 2011 are cut.
“Let’s not even have that battle. Let’s just deal with (fiscal year) 2011,” Cafero said.
But other legal questions remain. Rell’s Office of Labor Relations, part of her budget department, earlier this month told Hearst Connecticut Newspapers lawmakers cannot simply eliminate current longevity payments because the bonuses are considered wages.
Lawmakers could, according to Labor Relations staff, freeze increases, which kick in on workers’ 15-, 20- and 25-year anniversaries, and eliminate bonuses for employees who have yet to qualify for them and for future state employees.
Derek Slap, spokesman for the Senate Democrats, on Monday said questions have been raised about the proposal his caucus passed Saturday and “we will absolutely look into them. We feel it is permissible and we know the Rell administration apparently feels the same way.”
But Jeffrey Beckham, a spokesman for the governor’s budget office, said “I don’t think (we’ve) said we’re willing to support this particular proposal.”
Beckham and others said union longevity pay also needs to be targeted.
On March 18, Rell wrote the unions requesting additional concessions, including in longevity pay. Union leaders fired off a response, calling Rell’s move “cynical scapegoating, which masquerades for leadership.”
Although the Legislature does not negotiate contracts, Cafero said if lawmakers eliminate longevity pay for nonunion workers they should also formally outline they expect similar concessions from organized labor.
The Legislature could also vote to amend existing statutes to remove longevity pay from binding arbitration so it cannot be an issue in future contract negotiations.
Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Labor Committee, voted Saturday for the deficit-mitigation plan, but said the longevity piece was not well thought out.
“You can’t do it to people who are nonunion and not do it to people who are union,” she said.
Some union leaders late last week used the threatened changes to nonunion employees’ longevity as a recruitment tool. An e-mail sent Friday to 200 employees of the legislative branch read: “Now is the time for legislative employees to come together and protect their longevity. The only way to do this is to organize as a union and secure a legally blinding contract with the Connecticut General Assembly.”
“These workers have been subject to wage freezes, furlough days and increased co-shares for healthcare just like their co-workers,” union spokesman Matt O’Connor said. “But they are being asked to make additional sacrifices just because they don’t have union representation.”