By Theresa Harrington
Tensions between union employees and Mt. Diablo district officials are intensifying, as the Local One Clerical, Secretarial and Technical (CST) unit has declared impasse this week. The union’s Maintenance and Operations unit was already in mediation.
Larry Edgington, Local One general manager, told me the Personnel Employee Relations Board has been notified of the stalled negotiations.
Due to reduced state funding and skyrocketing healthcare costs, the district wants employees to accept caps on employer contributions to benefits, which the union says would decimate workers’ paychecks. In response, the district has proposed cutting employees’ hours to 3.5 a day, which would make them ineligible for benefits.
“I want to remain optimistic that we’re going to be able to do something that’s equitable, but I’m not holding my breath,” Edgington told me. “It’s a pretty difficult situation and we’re not unsympathetic to the financial difficulties of the employer.”
The proposed caps would be prorated for employees who work less than full-time, meaning they would pay a higher percent of their earnings toward benefits. For many workers, this means by 2013, they would make 20 to 25 percent less than they did five years ago, Edgington said.
“How can any household absorb that kind of reduction?” he said. “Increasingly, we have more and more of our members working two jobs, just to make ends meet.”
Edgington predicts people close to retirement age will leave and those remaining will start looking for other permanent employment.
“We’ve already experienced this in West County, where they’re becoming an employer of last resort,” Edgington said. “I’m told at any given time they have 50 vacancies. The fundamental problem is they can’t get people to pass the (employment) test. The truth, is in terms of the quality of applicants, they’re not getting it. We really want to avoid that in Mt. Diablo. It’s not good for the employer, the kids, or the parents. You don’t want to have a workforce that’s like that, but that’s the direction I think we’re headed.”
He said the district appears to believe it has no choice.
“We think they’ve got some options,” Edgington said. “They have (federal) jobs money. But they have a real reluctance to spend one-time money on what they’re characterizing as structural.”
The district received about $6.5 million from the Congressional bill recently passed to save jobs. Edgington suggests the district could use it to ease the transition for employees who must start paying for a portion of their benefits.
“All I’d say is, ‘Think about putting yourself in my members’ shoes,” Edgington said. “One of an employers’ first obligations is to have caring and compassion and one of the ways you demonstrate that is to pay employees fairly.”
Without going into details, Edgington said the union has put some other ideas on the table that would net roughly the same amount in budget reductions as the district is seeking.
“We think it’s pretty close to what they say they need in terms of dollars,” Edgington said. “The difference is it’s not put together the way they want it. They’re just really hung up on what I’ll call ‘certain philosophical objectives.’”
He declined to elaborate on those objectives.
“I don’t want to get into negotiations,” he said. “There’s nobody on my side of the table that doesn’t acknowledge it’s a tough situation for the employer. What is troubling is that the employer is not acknowledging that it’s a tough situation for their employees.”
Further exacerbating frustrations, some classified employees said they were initially told they would have to take vacation days today because district managers had agreed to furlough days. Superintendent Steven Lawrence sent out a memo earlier this month saying all schools would be closed today due to a “Board Recess Day” and that district offices would be closed due to furlough days.
But Judy Armstrong, a secretary who represents Local One’s CST unit, said Lawrence’s memo failed to acknowledge that her union members had not agreed to furlough days and were not included in the board recess.
“If they want that day off, they can take a vacation day, but the district can’t tell them that they can’t work,” Armstrong said earlier this week. “I’ve already had a couple of them tell me, ‘My principal’s telling me I can’t go (to work) because the superintendent said the schools are closed.’”
Armstrong speculated that some of the confusion is the result of so many new district administrators, including several principals, assistant superintendents and the superintendent.
“It’s getting to be a comedy of errors,” Armstrong said. “This is a new group in here. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. There’s going to be a million mistakes. A million.”
Julie Braun-Martin, who was recently appointed as assistant superintendent for personnel, disputed these assertions.
“Nobody was told they had to take vacation days,” she said. “If they choose to take vacation days, that’s great. It’s a regular work day for them.”
The teachers’ union is also at odds with the district over pay for extra hours worked after school, said Mike Langley, union president.
An arbitrator has ruled that teachers can’t be paid extra for work after school until “evening,” but didn’t specify a time, Langley said.
The artibrator described evening as, “when light fades to dark,” he said. That could be 7 o’clock when school starts in August, but 4:45 p.m. next month, Langley said.
“We asked the district to give us a definite time,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re going to leave it up to the judgement of each site.’ But they said they would encourage them to be as thoughtful as possible.”
Traditionally, Langley said, “evening” has been considered to begin at 5 p.m. But, some administrators want to push that to 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m.
Many teachers arrive on campus at 7 a.m. and have obligations at home after school, including child care and caring for elderly parents, he said. In addition, teachers grade student work and prepare lessons in the evenings.
Lack of clear communication from the district is adding to frustrations teachers are already feeling based on proposed furlough days and other cuts, which are on the bargaining table.
“It’s not something that I would think was the best way to handle it if you’ve already got a demoralized group of people,” Langley said. “You arbitrarily increase hours, but then refuse to give us a time when we can plan our child’s daycare to end.”
The California School Employees Association, which represents instructional assistants and some other classified workers, has not met with the district since members rejected the district’s proposed health benefits cap last month.
“My union voted down that other contract and we haven’t even spoken to them,” union rep Annie Nolen told me today. “We’re not going to meet ’til the 19th (next Friday), so we’ll see what happens then, I guess.”
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NOV. 17 UPDATE: Julie Braun-Martin, assistant superintendent for personnel, sent this response to my question regarding when “evening” begins for teachers in the district:
“During the arbitration hearing, MDEA could not provide any examples of site administrators abusing their ability to hold after school meetings. Principals have indicated that meetings end by 5 or 5:30 p.m. Principals continue to be reasonable and respectful of employee’s time i.e., the same practices that the PERB arbitrator summarily approved.”