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Shumlin Administration, State Workers' Union At Impasse Over Contract

A labor contract dispute between the Vermont State Employees Association and the state is now before the Vermont Labor Relations Board, which will hold a hearing early next month on the ongoing disagreement.

Both parties have agreed to seek a two-year labor contract to succeed the current deal, which is set to expire on June 30. But coming to terms on the finer details of the deal has been elusive. After reaching an impasse in negotiations, both sides agreed to mediation, but still did not find agreement. A fact finder was appointed and held two hearings in January.

Both sides submitted their last best offers to the board on Monday.

The state, according to the last best offer document it filed, has offered a 1 percent pay increase on top of what it says will be a 1.7 percent “step increase” that employees receive based on their experience for the first year, for a total pay increase of 2.7 percent. The first year increase would apply to both the management unit and the non-management bargaining units. In the second year of the contract the state has proposed a 2.95 percent bump for both units, with 1.25 percent in base salary increases.

The state also proposed a 0.5 percent base pay increase in both years for some members of the Vermont State Police, who have a different step increase structure.

The VSEA, meanwhile, is seeking a 2 percent boost in pay plus year-one step increases for both units. According to VSEA, however, the step increases only amount to 1 percent in the first year. In the second year, VSEA has proposed a 2.25 percent bump plus a 1.7 percent step increase.

The VSEA’s position mirrors what an appointed fact finder recommended. The fact finder, Gary Altman, held hearings on Jan. 11 and 15 to help the two sides reach an agreement.

Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson said each percentage of increase represents $6 million in state funding needed to cover the salary increases.

“We think it’s reasonable,” he said of the state’s offer. “Given the budget challenges that we have we’ve got to think about how we’re going to pay for it. We’ve got to find $6 million.”

Johnson said the average Vermonter is not receiving the type of pay increase sought by the VSEA and probably doesn’t expect it, either.

“I’m not sure that they are,” he said.

But Steve Howard, the union’s executive director, said the state’s offer does not meet private sector pay scales.

“What’s wrong with that is state employees are, in general, paid about 13 percent less than their private sector counterparts, and they’re carrying massive work loads. One only needs to look at DCF caseloads to understand what that means,” he said. “Their cost of living has not actually kept up with the growth in income that Vermonters have experienced.”

Howard said the state never officially presented its last best offer to the union. “If they had made a proposal similar to this in bargaining, we could have saved the Legislature and the labor relations board a lot of trouble,” he said.

Howard said the union’s last best offer, based on the fact finder’s report, was presented to, and rejected by, the state.

“He is an independent, unbiased person," Howard said of the fact finder. "Basically he looked at two things — what would be fair as it relates to what people in the private sector are being paid … and does the state have the ability to afford it. What the fact finder found … is yes, in fact, the state can afford this. We’re not in a recession.”

Lawmakers who are crafting the 2017 fiscal year state budget are awaiting a final agreement to factor into the budget. The House Appropriations Committee has already passed its budget plan, so the Senate will have to incorporate the final agreement after the Vermont Labor Relations Board weighs in.

“The Legislature is going to get this at the very last minute. We think that’s unfortunate. We’ve worked very hard. We wish they would have met us half way,” Howard said.

This story was originally published by the Vermont Press Bureau and is republished here under a partnership with the bureau.

Neal is a reporter for the Vermont Press Bureau and a contributor to VPR News.
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