December 15, 2012

Maine State Employees Association resumes labor talks with state this week

Mediator heads new talks as workers continue to labor under terms of expired contract; merit pay hikes, reclassification interest at issue

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- The state and the Maine State Employees Association are set to go back to the negotiating table this week as they try to come to a collective bargaining agreement 18 months after the contract expired.

click image to enlarge

Chris Quint

Staff file photo by Andy Molloy

The contract that covers 11,000 state workers expired June 30, but remains in effect until a new agreement can be reached. Having failed to reach an agreement thus far, the two sides now negotiate through a Maine Labor Relations Board mediator.

Chris Quint, executive director of the MSEA, described the current tenor of negotiations as neutral.

"They are not stalled," he said. "We're not the (National Hockey League) here."

Negotiations got off to a chilly start in 2011 when Gov. Paul LePage hired a New York attorney to review the contract and make recommendations for changes. Lou DiLorenzo, a labor and employment law specialist and managing partner with Bond, Schoeneck & King, continues to be involved as a consultant to the state's negotiating team, which is led by Breena Whitcomb of the Office of Employee Relations, said Jennifer Smith, director of legislative affairs and communications for the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services, in an email.

During the state budget process, LePage froze merit increases for state workers and backed legislation that would get rid of the union's fair share provision that requires all state workers to join the union or pay portion of union dues.

The fair share legislation died for lack of support by lawmakers, and it has since been dropped as a bargaining issue by the state during negotiations, Quint said.

From the state's perspective, there are remaining issues to be worked out that include the discontinuance of payments to union members when they go to their annual convention or attend monthly meetings, Smith said.

Also, the state wants to reduce the amount of interest paid retroactively to workers who are reclassified into higher paying jobs. The current rate is 8 percent, according to the state.

"These proposals aim for more responsible use of taxpayer money," Smith wrote.

Quint said workers who are picking up duties beyond their classification deserve to be paid for the extra effort.

With a new Democratic Legislature, the union is hopeful that it can restore merit pay, he said.

"We're now going on four years where state employees have not had a pay raise," he said.

Last week, LePage also announced a mini-benefit to state workers by giving them a paid half-day off on Christmas Eve so they can travel to be with their families for the holiday.

Typically, the state and the union negotiate a new contract every two years. Quint said it's unclear whether any new agreement reached before July 1 will be retroactive, temporary or a bridge to a new set of negotiations.

State workers will give a "holiday reminder" to LePage on Monday by singing worker-themed songs outside the Blaine House, according to a union press release sent Friday.

"Throughout the state of Maine, snowplow drivers, public nurses, public safety workers and other public servants remain without a contract after over a year and a half of contract bargaining with the LePage administration," the union said in a statement.

Susan Cover -- 621-5643
scover@mainetoday.com

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