MONTPELIER – At least four employees say they’ve been erroneously listed on a controversial union grievance in which state workers are seeking double-time for hours worked in the days after Tropical Storm Irene.
The Vermont State Employees Association last week filed a grievance on behalf of nearly 100 state workers who say they’re owed twice their normal hourly rates for work performed in the days after the Aug. 28 rains.
In an e-mail to Gov. Peter Shumlin, Sonya Heath, who, until Irene, worked in Waterbury at the Agency of Human Service’s Application Document Processing Center, said she was irate to learn that her name had been included on the grievance.
“I have never wanted to receive double pay and neither have the majority of my coworkers,” Heath wrote, according to the e-mail. “We are all very angry and upset at having our names added when we wanted nothing to do with this. I have emailed the union, as have several of my coworkers, to have our names removed from this grievance.”
Heath is one of four state workers to contact the governor’s office after learning their names had been included on the grievance.
Connor Casey, director of legislative affairs for the VSEA, said the names were included as the result of a “miscommunication” between the employees and their union stewards.
“We’re certainly not pressuring anybody to be on this grievance,” Casey said Friday. “It’s an individual decision, and the issues have been remedied already.”
The e-mails have become the latest front in an increasingly politicized battle between the Shumlin administration and the state workers union over a disagreement about whether some employees are eligible for double time.
A clause in VSEA’s collective bargaining contract that says employees who work during “complete emergency closings” are entitled to twice their regular pay until they are officially notified they will be working from new locations.
The administration agrees that on Aug. 29 – the first day after Irene – employees called into work were entitled to twice their regular pay because state government was shutdown and only essential employees were activated. Statewide, the double-pay cost was about $400,000.
But after that, the administration argues, double-pay was not warranted.
“The contract does not define emergency and our belief is that the emergency was the day after Irene was blowing through and the entire state was closed,” said Jeb Spaulding, the secretary of administration for Shumlin.
The pay flap reached a crescendo on Wednesday, when Shumlin waded into the controversy by publicly shaming the state employees named in the grievance. Those employees comprise only a sliver of the 7,000 workers employed by the state of Vermont.
Since Shumlin’s comments, the administration has received at least four e-mails from state workers like Laura Andrews, who worked in the same document-processing center as Heath.
“I can not express enough to you how devastated I was along with many of my co-workers were when we found out our names had been included on a grievance to fight for ‘double pay,’” Andrews wrote.
Efforts to contact the letter-writers were unsuccessful Friday.
Andrews blamed the mix-up on one employee having instructed a union representative to include a number of workers in the grievance.
“I myself would never even think to do something like file a grievance for double pay when I’ve seen such loss in so many families and people I love,” she wrote.
Casey said it’s been demoralizing for employees to see media coverage of the disagreement between Shumlin and the union. The VSEA issued a statement Wednesday criticizing the governor for launching a “war of words” against the union.
Union officials blame the pay dispute over the administration’s failure to send notices of relocation to displaced workers – an action that would have avoided the double-pay clause.
“It is unfortunate that the disagreement between the administration and the union is the issue that’s being publicized these days when really state employees proved themselves more than ever in Hurricane Irene and showed an amazing effort to get the state back up on its feet again,” Casey said.
-Peter Hirschfeld | Bureau Chief