Twenty years ago, an overhaul at DHHS flipped the agency upside down
The news that the commissioner of the Department of Education is seeking broad powers to reshape the department as he sees fit should set off alarm bells for many reasons. Chief among them is that we’ve seen what the result can be if this happens.
It was nearly two decades ago, in 1997, that the legislature granted Health and Human Services Commissioner Terry Morton the ability to bypass state laws and personnel rules to reshape the department. The resulting 58 layoffs, and others who were demoted, set off a firestorm across the state, and led to a campaign to “Reinstate the 58” employees. All told, the mess took nearly eight years to clean up.
“It was huge,” said John Avlas, who was a steward and a supervisor at DHHS at the time. “It was all over the newspapers. I think it was a shock to the commissioner that it caused such a furor. I think to an extent he felt betrayed by the legislature. He didn’t know what he was getting into.”
The 58 layoffs represented a small fraction of the thousands of DHHS employees at the time, but the manner of the layoffs and the subsequent creation of high-salary management positions fueled the outrage. Newspapers in the state followed the issue closely, and the SEA newsletter ran headlines screaming “Local 1984 fights millionaire Morton’s layoffs.”
Targets for layoff
To DHHS employees at the time, the layoffs and demotions were clearly targeting certain individuals. The powers given to Morton made that targeting possible. Chapter 45 member and SEA Past President Diana Lacey said obvious examples were everywhere.
“In my division, my director was demoted in lieu of layoff and a new director was appointed,” she said.
The two had butted heads in the past, Lacey said, and the new director had a good relationship with Morton and his inner circle.
“From that perspective, the individuals that were demoted often disagreed — from a collegial standpoint — with the new director, so it seemed to be retaliatory,” she said. “We had a few people laid off from the field and those tended to be people who were in disagreement with the new director.”
In other cases, targeting of specific people was apparent for other reasons.
“In one part of the department, a husband and wife were both laid off, which seemed beyond chance, beyond reason, that they would both be laid off,” Lacey said.
‘People were crying’
The handling of layoffs was also questionable, with contractor Snowden Associates providing assistance to the department. Avlas said, as a supervisor, he sadly had a first-hand view.
“Employees were told to pack their things and leave immediately,” he said. “They sent security over. People were crying, because they’d known them for years.”
Ken Roos, now First Vice President of the union, wasn’t a member at the time, but that soon changed. When the layoffs were announced, Roos said his supervisor told him it was the task of the immediate supervisor to notify affected employees and escort them out of the building.
“Instead of the commissioner or upper management contacting the individuals, it was left to the immediate supervisors who didn’t really know what was going on,” Roos said. “I remember saying to my supervisor that this wasn’t my choice, why isn’t someone higher up doing this?”
‘Reinstate the 58’
Within a week of the layoffs, SEA members took action. More than 150 rallied on the grounds of the State Office Park South, officially beginning the “Reinstate the 58” movement. The union was active on multiple fronts, petitioning Gov. Jeanne Shaheen to reinstate the employees and fighting the issue all the way to the Supreme Court.
In the midst of all of this, Morton stayed mum. That wasn’t the case for the commissioner’s boss, however.
“Gov. Shaheen come over to my building, and stood right in the middle of the cafeteria, telling employees that she was there and was available,” Avlas said.
Meanwhile, the commissioner was left fairly isolated.
“Not one legislator came to his defense because the outrage was so intense,” Avlas said. “That was the end of Morton. It was pretty amazing.”
Morton soon after received a vote of no confidence from DHHS employees, with a stunning 96 percent voting, “Commissioner Morton is NOT doing a good job and I wish to express my lack of confidence in his administration.”
The fight against Morton’s layoffs and demotions dragged on for years, and the toll was heavy. Nearly all laid off employees were hired back and the demotions were overturned, all with back pay. Tragically, one of the workers who was laid off, a hearings officer by the name of Peter Prescott, took his life by suicide.
“He’d been told he was safe as he was the only non-lawyer in his department,” Avlas said. “They found some way to isolate him and terminate him.”
Cleaning up the mess
The entire episode took years to clean up and caused more endless problems. The new high-level positions created at the agency were staffed mainly by workers with no public sector experience.
“The new people that were brought in didn’t want to deal with the constructs that had been put in place by the legislature, and that eventually hurt the organization,” Lacey said. “Much of that was undone, but it took close to eight years for everything to be resolved, and it cost a fortune.”
As for Morton, he stayed with the agency up until his term ended at the beginning of 1999 and Gov. Shaheen did not reappoint him. Avlas said he recalled Morton’s successor, Don Shumway, saying that on the day he reported for duty, he found Morton still in his office doing work.
“Here’s a guy who apparently really loved the job, but just had no sense of the political aspects,” Avlas said.
Roos said it ended up creating a lot of work for everyone involved.
“Those who were terminated got their jobs back eventually, but other people had to do the work they were doing,” Roos said. “And there was even more upheaval after people were brought back, and had to be trained on new jobs.”
Now, just as it was with DHHS in 1997, Roos said plans to reorganize the Department of Education are an attempt to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.
“This has all the earmarks of a power grab,” he said. “Government agencies may not be perfect, but they’re still working well. When things need fixing, we need to do so thoughtfully. Hopefully, this time we’ll be smart enough to make the right decision.”
You can take action by attending the hearing, calling your senator
Next Tuesday, the Senate’s Education Committee will hold a hearing on a plan that would drastically overhaul the Department of Education at the request of new Commissioner Frank Edelblut.
The plan was proposed by Sen. John Reagan, as an amendment to an unrelated bill. The proposal provides the Department of Education commissioner broad authority to reorganize the department, without oversight or consultation. This kind of an overhaul, giving vast authority to the commissioner, is not a great idea. Ramming it through this late in the legislative process is an even worse idea.
“We’re shocked something of this magnitude could come in this late in the session, although we are pleased they will at least hold a hearing,” said SEA President Rich Gulla. “The bottom line is that this kind of drastic overhaul requires thoughtful consideration and strong knowledge of the agency. With zero experience and only being on the job for a couple months, Commissioner Edelblut couldn’t even have learned everyone’s name yet, let alone how the agency works.”
Instead of approving Sen. Reagan’s amendment, the Senate should instead take the suggestion of Sen. David Watters and create a study committee for the proposed reorganization. Here are a couple of steps you can take to push back against this power grab:
Be at the hearing: We need you to be at the hearing on Tuesday, to make sure the Senate Education Committee knows this is unacceptable. If you can’t stay, please try to drop by and sign your name in opposition to the amendment. The hearing is at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Room 103 of the Legislative Office Building.
Call your senator: In the meantime, you can call your senator and let them know you strongly oppose this power grab. You can find your senator’s information here.
For more information
Nominations will be accepted through close of business on May 9
Nominations are being accepted for an open position on the SEA/SEIU Local 1984 Board of Directors. The seat will be filled by a special election at the June Council meeting.
This seat was left vacant when Cindy Sanborn-Dubey, a longtime member leader at the Liquor Commission, left state service. The winner of the special election would fill out the remainder of her term, which runs through 2019.
If you’re interested, you’ll need to submit your declaration of candidacy no later than 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 9. That form has been mailed out to members, but you may also print out the form and mail it back. Alternatively, you can fill out the form and submit it entirely online.
The June Council meeting is set for Thursday, June 8, at the DES/DHHS auditorium, 29 Hazen Drive, Concord. Registration begins at 6:30 p.m., the meeting at 7.
On Wednesday, the Executive Council confirmed Ken Merrifield as Commissioner of the Department of Labor. Merrifield is in his fifth term as mayor of the city of Franklin, and also currently works in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Earlier this week, Merrifield met with SEA leaders and members from the Department of Labor and answered their questions. The SEA holds these meetings when nominees for state agency positions are brought forward, to give employees an opportunity to pose questions before the Executive Council votes on the nomination.
Merrifield was confirmed by a vote of 4-1, with Executive Councilor Chris Pappas providing the dissenting vote. He’ll step down from his post as mayor next month when the takes the reins at the Department of Labor.
You can read the Concord Monitor’s report on his confirmation here.
In an alarming move, Gov. Sununu’s Education Commissioner, Frank Edelblut, has moved to drastically overhaul the education department – while simultaneously executing a huge power grab.
At the request of Edelblut, Sen. John Reagan (R–District 17) introduced an amendment to vastly expand the role of the Commissioner of Education. This move would allow Edelblut an unprecedented amount of authority – despite zero previous public education experience and having only been on the job a couple months.
Even the Union Leader’s editorial page is suggesting that Edelblut slow down and “provide a more detailed road map” of how he would restructure the department. We need the Senate to give this the attention it deserves, not allow it to be rushed through at the last minute. The Senate Education Committee will hold a hearing on this bill next Tuesday — we’ll have more details in Thursday’s SEA News.
In the meantime, you can call your state senator and tell them you strongly oppose this attempt at a power grab. You can find your senator’s information here.
Members covered by the State Employee Health Benefit have access to numerous great “fringe benefits” as part of the health coverage. This includes things like Healthy Rewards and the fitness club reimbursement. Unlike the health benefit, however, “fringe benefits” are taxable under IRS guidelines. The state processes the withholding for these taxable items once a quarter, and for the most recent quarter, that withholding will happen in this week’s (April 14) paycheck.
The most recently completed quarter includes any fringe benefits received between November 2016 through January 2017. If you have questions about the amount withheld, you can contact Anthem directly or your HR/payroll office.
You can see the complete notice from the state below:
ANTHEM and HEALTH REWARDS
PAYROLL PROCESSING PLANNED FOR THE 04/14/2017 PAY CHECK
Those employees that have been reimbursed directly (paid to employee) or indirectly (paid to facility/organization on behalf of the employee) for fitness club, equipment and education expenses and gift card issuances for Nov 2016 through Jan 2017 are planned to be processed with the pay check dated 4/14/2017. This process will report the first quarter of fringe benefits for Anthem Rewards reporting year.
These dollars are considered a fringe benefit and will increase taxable wages and withholding for all Federal, Social Security and Medicare Taxes. Pursuant to IRS guidelines, the value of these taxable benefits received by employees in the period of November 2016 through October 2017 will be included in the employee’s 2017 wages. This process is being performed to meet Federal fringe benefit reporting requirements. The dollars associated with this process are listed below as pay code number, long description and check description:
- 702 HEALTH CLUB REIMBURSEMENT “HLTHCLNF”
- 703 HEALTH EDUC REIMBURSEMENT “HLTHEDNF”
- 704 HEALTH EQUIP REIMBURSEMENT “HLTHEQNF”
- 712 HEALTH REWARDS “HLTHREW”
Editor’s note: As the PELRB prepares to handle the SEA’s unfair labor practice complaint over collective bargaining, we thought it would be helpful to explain exactly what the board does and where it came from.
For public employees, the PELRB — short for Public Employee Labor Relations Board — is one of the most essential governmental entities. The PELRB essentially facilitates the relationship in collective bargaining between public employees and public employers.
The PELRB will hear and decide the current dispute between the SEA and the state over collective bargaining, but there’s a whole lot more the PELRB oversees as the neutral party. Here’s a quick overview.
The PELRB is defined in RSA 273-A, the same law that spells out most rules relating to public employees and organized labor. The SEA played a significant role in the development of that law in 1975, after years of agitating for collective bargaining rights. The law was, and is, a huge deal because it spelled out the right for public employees to organize and collectively bargain, and also required public employees and employers to bargain in good faith.
The board has five members and two alternates, with two representing management and two representing labor. All are appointed by the Governor and Council. Here are a few of the board’s key functions:
The PELRB website is a massively helpful resource, which includes links to all decisions made by the board, collective bargaining agreements, and links to all relevant laws. If you’re at all interested in labor law or collective bargaining, it’s a site worth bookmarking and exploring. You can access the PELRB website here.
How a teachers’ strike led to NH’s collective bargaining law
In the early 1970s, public employees in New Hampshire didn’t have a lot of rights when it came to collective bargaining. They could, however, strike. Things reached a crisis point when, in 1974, teachers from the Timberlane School District went on the longest public employee strike in history.
Something needed to be done to instill order into the system of public employee collective bargaining.
“The legislature understood we needed to act and stop squabbling,” said attorney Dick Molan, who at the time was on the staff at the SEA. “The speaker of the House established a committee. They rented an office and put all of us in there — management and labor — and told us to hammer out a system.”
After about two weeks of give and take, the group emerged with what would become RSA 273-A, the Public Employee Labor Relations Act. The proposed law would outlaw strikes, but compel public employers and employees to bargain in good faith. In short, it provided balance to an unbalanced system.
While the SEA’s history dates back to the early 1940s, the idea of collective bargaining for public employees didn’t gain steam until President Kennedy issued an executive order allowing federal employees to bargain.
“After that, a wave spread across the country — mostly in northern states — to allow public employees to bargain,” Molan said.
New Hampshire actually had a provision going back to the 1950s that gave towns and cities the ability to collectively bargain if they chose to do so. The first contracts started to appear around 1953 in Manchester’s public works department. The movement caught fire with state employees in the late 1960s, Molan said.
“The SEA was able to push through a law in 1969 that allowed employees to bargain over everything except wages and benefits,” Molan said. “So you could talk about the color of the walls” but not those important financial issues.
In the early 1970s, different labor unions in New Hampshire all offered up drafts of laws that were aimed to closely mirror the National Labor Relations Act. None got much traction until the turning point — the Timberlane strike. The work stoppage wasn’t just a big deal here, it made national news on the pages of the New York Times.
‘The pressure was there’
Then-Gov. Meldrim Thomson wanted a resolution, and asked Molan and the commissioner of the Department of Labor to mediate. The teachers said yes, but the school district said no. Needless to say, the governor wasn’t happy.
“We had a very direct order from the speaker of the House, who said ‘you are going to come up with a bill,’” Molan said. “The pressure was there and no one was going to resist it.”
The law had mutual benefits. It put an end to public employee strikes that could prove debilitating to employers, but it also established a system in which labor and management were compelled to negotiate in good faith. The law also created the Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PELRB), which plays a key role in the relationship between labor and management.
‘Things have changed’
The bill that created RSA 273-A was eventually approved and took effect in December 1975. That such a complicated and far-reaching bill came together so quickly and in such a bipartisan fashion might seem foreign in today’s political environment.
“Things have changed so much,” Molan said. “Back then, people actually did sit down together.”
Molan reminisced about Concord’s old Highway Hotel, which burned down nearly 30 years ago.
“The hotel used to give legislators a great deal on rooms,” he said. “Most stayed over Tuesday and Wednesday night. Everybody knew one another. Lobbyists were expected to have hospitality suites one of the two nights. The result was that you really got to know people on a personal level, and lawmakers got to know each other on a personal level. That made all the difference.”
On Thursday, the Senate approved SB 215, a bill that would allow CCSNH to re-enter the state health plan. The bill is only enabling legislation, meaning that it would allow the state and CCSNH to consider the change.
The change would likely be very good for CCSNH — which has struggled with increasing health care costs — and its employees. Despite this obvious benefit, there was still some opposition. After the bill was initially passed by the Senate, it was sent back to the Finance Committee where it received a recommendation of “inexpedient to legislate.” That’s where you came in.
Members reached out to senators with phone calls and emails over a period of a few weeks. When the bill came up for a vote on Thursday, the Senate first needed to overturn the committee’s recommendation, which it did. Then, by a bipartisan vote of 11-10, the Senate approved SB 215 and sent it on to the House.
Thank you to all of the members — at CCSNH and elsewhere — who made phone calls and sent emails to help get this bill passed. We should also thank the senators who supported the bill: all Democrats (with the exception of Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, who was excused) and Sens. Andy Sanborn, Dan Innis and William Gannon.
We’ll have an update once the bill is introduced in the House.
Actions you can take as House prepares to vote on budget
Last Tuesday, the House Finance Committee approved the budget (HB 1) and the so-called budget trailer bill (HB 2). With the bill now set to move on to the full House for a vote, there are two key areas of concern: plans for the Sununu Youth Services Center (SYSC) and changes to retiree health care.
One issue with the budget process is that it’s fluid, meaning things can change. After the House approves the budget, it moves on to the Senate, which has the benefit of updated revenue projections. That could mean more — or less — money to work with. Regardless, we’re going to go a bit into detail on each proposed change, and the action you can take right now.
“Now’s the time to stand up and advocate for yourself and your peers,” said Karen Crowley, a registered nurse at SYSC and president of Chapter 21. “Everybody needs to come together as one and start fighting for the things we’re losing. We didn’t vote for losing our retirement or losing our jobs. We need to get together and talk to our lawmakers about it.”
Retiree health care
What’s proposed: Medicare-eligible state retirees, born on or after Jan. 1, 1949, would have to pay at least a 10 percent premium for health insurance. Anyone born before Jan. 1, 1949 would be “grandfathered in” and not subject to paying the premium.
Retirees under 65 and not yet Medicare-eligible would see their health insurance premium increase from 17.5 percent to 20 percent.
Take action: This proposal is actually an improvement over the original, but we need to do better for our retirees (if you’re a state employee, that means you). Call your representatives right now, especially if you’re already retired, and tell them how this change would affect you. You can find their information by entering your information here.
Sununu Youth Services Center
What’s proposed: Cut the number of beds at SYSC from 144 to 36. Job cuts at SYSC would be enormous: 45 positions would be eliminated. With the reduction in beds, juveniles would have to be placed in smaller facilities.
Take action: First, you can call your representatives, as the House will vote on the budget next week. You can find their information by entering your information here. Lawmakers shouldn’t assume they know what’s best for the juveniles detained at SYSC. We’re also working with chapter presidents to set up remote phone banks to oppose this plan. If you’re interested, you can contact your chapter president.
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