Concord, NH, September 4, 2013 – After waiting a year to see justice done, five employees that represented more than 1,000 state employees in 24/7 state agencies sat in a large conference room expecting their long awaited arbitration, between the State Employees’ Association and the State of New Hampshire, to begin. At issue is a unilateral and sudden change in pay for shift work that was implemented in July 2012, allegedly so that the State could comply with federal labor laws. Ten minutes after the arbitration was to begin, a call to the arbitrator, Gary Altman, revealed the Governor’s representatives had decided not to go forward with the arbitration as planned late yesterday, after business hours had already ended. They failed to contact the employees’ legal counsel. You can see and hear these employees’ reactions here.
“These workers were subpoenaed to appear today to testify before the arbitrator. They saw their pay cut more than a year ago and now today they saw something they hoped they would never see – that the State really doesn’t care whether they get justice or not,” said SEA President, Diana Lacey. The SEA filed an unfair labor practice complaint (ULP) in 2012 with the Public Employee Labor Relations Board. At the same time, they filed a grievance, citing the State’s action violated the SEA contract and NH state law, RSA 273:A. “Last December, the State agreed to go through the grievance process, which includes arbitration at times, to negate the need for the formal charges we had filed against them in the ULP. We assented to the stay the state asked for. We did that in good faith, just as these workers have continued to work filling in for staff shortages in the state’s critical 24/7 agencies, even though their pay was cut, in good faith that their case would work through our grievance process, as spelled out in their collective bargaining agreement.”
In the months that followed the pay cut, SEA representatives learned that at the heart of the state’s action was a computer system problem that the state just couldn’t seem to fix. Rather than fixing the problem, the state chose to cut employee pay. To date, the state has not provided any evidence that their original reason for the action was compliance with federal law; and there have been widespread rumors that employees are being harmed because the state purchased the wrong computer system. Since implementing the human resource and payroll modules in the new system, hundreds of employees have reported incorrect pay, incorrect leave balances, and most recently, an inability to see job vacancies or apply for job openings.
The state actions on shift differentials impact workers caring for the patients in NH Hospital, the veterans residing in the NH Veterans’ Home; the elderly residing at Glencliff Home; as well as correctional and nursing staff at the Dept. of Corrections, some transportation workers and other groups of workers. Dedicated workers find it very hard to leave those they are entrusted to care for on the hook for the state’s problems though. “Should we follow the example of our employer and everybody not show up for work tomorrow,” asked Thomas Messina, a sergeant with the NH Dept. of Corrections, who has waited for this day for a long time.
This latest instance of disregard and disrespect for the state’s workforce may just be the tipping point for employees. At this morning’s Governor and Executive Council meeting, questions about the computer system, Lawson, were raised as councilors reported receiving calls from employees about all of the payroll problems. Governor Hassan’s Manager of Employee Relations, Matt Newland, works in the Department of Administrative Services – the agency in charge of purchasing and operating the Lawson system. Newland issued the memo changing shift differential pay last year.
Newland, along with Assistant Attorney General, Mike Brown, allege the arbitration was delayed because there was a verbal agreement that the arbitration would not be binding. “That’s a lie – plain and simple. We agreed to stay the unfair labor practice in December because the state agreed to go through the grievance process to negate the need for the complaint. There are over 1,000 workers that have been waiting for their day in ‘court’ and in the evening before the arbitration, the state blows them off claiming something from last March dramatically changed the scope of the arbitration. I even went on record in August, in a letter to Governor Hassan, pointing out the state’s latest stalling tactic, and expressly informing her that we disagree with Brown and Newland’s position on the matter and expect the arbitration to go forward,” said Lacey.
Shift differentials were also a subject of contract negotiations this summer. The parties reached a tentative agreement on new contract provisions for implementation beginning July 2013; that agreement was not ratified, though, and the parties are in mediation. In contract talks, the State asked the SEA team to withdraw the arbitration request and unfair labor practice charges, as part of a contract settlement. “When I got the call from the SEA team that the state wanted this, I informed them that the team had no authority to settle grievances and unfair labor practices on behalf of the SEA. The stunt pulled today by the state is just the state’s latest attempt to delay settling this matter. They know what they did violated the contract and state law, that’s why they keep stalling.”
“If the state system was all straight 9 to 5 shifts, the Lawson system would work beautifully,” said Laurie Aucoin, an accounting tech at NH Hospital who was at the arbitration today and is on the SEA bargaining team. “But that’s not what we have. Not all state agencies are alike and we are paying the price. They are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It isn’t working.” “It didn’t match up with a software system called Lawson. It didn’t work out for Lawson so I get affected and so do 999 other people get affected because of a software system that can’t handle the situation, once again,” said Shelley Elmes, also employed at NH Hospital. “Who is going to take responsibility for approving the purchase of this software program and the chaos it is creating. Who is going to stand up and say it isn’t working?”
Today’s arbitration falls just days after Governor Hassan spoke eloquently about workers and their unions at the AFL-CIO Labor Day breakfast. Speeches that day addressed the misclassification of workers, employers that don’t pay employees what they are owed for pay, and numerous other workplace issues. “I listened to the speeches, and couldn’t help thinking to myself, ‘except for state employees.’” said Lacey. “I listened to people quote Martin Luther King. Today, all I can think of is his words: justice long delayed is justice denied.”
Lacey has instructed the SEA legal team to move forward the unfair labor practice, and will brief the SEA Board of Directors on the situation. Members that attended today’s arbitration are going back to their worksites to give their co-workers the bad news. “One way or another, these workers voices will be heard and they will have their day in court.”