AFSCME faces dues hit from labor-state cutbacks

Catherine Bennett had processed septic system applications at the R.I. Department of Environmental Management for three and a half years before she received word two months ago that her job would be eliminated.

A single mother of two, Bennett was relieved when she was able to transfer last month into a job at the R.I. Department of Health, handling lead-poisoning data. But just two weeks into her new position, she received another notice: She was out of a job again, bumped by a more senior state employee.

After a day of fear and confusion, Bennett accepted another data-processing job at the Health Department. “My head is spinning,” she said last week. “I’m going with the flow, but right now I have a very uneasy feeling.”

Bennett is one of a growing number of state workers feeling the effects of the Gov. Donald L. Carcieri’s plan to save up to $100 million by cutting 1,000 state jobs – a plan that at least one union official says has proved costly in other ways.

“It’s causing people a lot of stress in their lives,” said J. Michael Downey, president of Council 94, American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “It’s causing a lot of tears, too.”

For its part, the Carcieri administration says cases of difficulties in implementing the layoff plan have been exaggerated, noting that the number of people impacted by the layoffs is relatively small when considering the state’s payroll numbers 15,000.

“The reality of it is that a limited number of people got layoff notices and most of those people got redeployed,” said Beverly Najarian, the state director of administration.

Indeed, Downey acknowledged that only 13 members of his union had been laid off so far – Council 94 represents about 5,000 of the state’s 15,000 employees.

At the same time, however, 426 other state employees – mostly unionized workers – have been notified that their jobs might be eliminated in the future. “That has been almost as difficult and stressful as the layoffs themselves,” Downey said last week.

In addition, the initial set of layoff notices mailed to 82 AFSCME members in November triggered “bumping” rules in which employees losing their position are allowed to take a job of a less senior worker.

That has created its own set of problems.

Take Bennett’s case, in which she has bumped two people out of their jobs, and was bumped once herself.

In another case, Downey said, a clerk in her late 50s who answered phones and delivered mail at the R.I. Department of Human Services bumped into what she thought would be a similar clerking job at the R.I. Department of Administration, Downey said. Instead, she ended up driving a pickup truck and hefting bulk-mail packages to the State House, the state administration building and other locations.

“She had never driven a truck in her life,” Downey said, adding that the clerk was able to transfer to another job.

Carcieri unveiled his plan to cut 1,000 state jobs last year, as part of an effort to close the projected $450 million budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The plan call for the job cuts to come from a mix of layoffs, eliminating contracted jobs and leaving some jobs vacant.

A breakdown of the initial 157 layoffs show the largest number come from the R.I. Department of Mental Health, Retardation, and Hospitals (45 positions) and DHHS (31). Layoffs were also made in the R.I. Department of Administration (16), the R.I. Department of Labor & Training (13), in Public Safety (11) and the DEM (9), among others.

Of those 426 state employees who were notified that their jobs are in jeopardy, the majority (234) work for the MHRH.

Carcieri initially had said the move would save $100 million, but administration officials told House Finance Committee members that the savings might fall short of its goal. Last week, Najarian said those statements had been blown out of proportion.

“Because of the bumping process that we’re required to follow, until the music stops and you know who’s left without the chairs, it’s difficult to assess what the actual savings will be,” she said. “The unemployment payments we need to make, and the governor has agreed that we would pay 90 days of health benefits for those who have laid off – there are some additional costs we’re going to incur that may make the $100 million slightly less.”

But there’s no question but that the actual layoff process has been awkward, and made more unwieldy by the bumping rules.

The process started on Nov. 15, when the state mailed layoff notices to 157 state employees, a mix of unionized and non-union workers. At the same time, letters were mailed notifying another 426 workers that their jobs could be eliminated in the coming year – the so-called List B layoffs.

State officials said the layoff notices touched off three complicated rounds of bumping expected to continue until next month.

With the initial notification, employees were given two weeks to either accept the layoff or take another job at or below their pay grade, as long as they met the qualifications.

Then those employees bumped out by senior workers received notification letters on Dec. 7, at which time they were given the chance to bump someone else out of a position.

The process was repeated again, with new layoff letters going Jan. 4, sent to those who had been bumped out in the second round. State officials said those employees are in the process of making their decisions now.

Melanie Marcaccio, state deputy personnel administrator, said a final set of layoff notices is due to be issued Feb. 2.

In the meantime, Downey said Council 94 has so far filed three grievances and one unfair labor practice complaint over the way the layoffs have been handled.

Downey criticized the administration for having incoming workers and the employees whom they bumped working at the same jobs for an overlapping two weeks – in many cases, having the departing worker training the replacement.

But Najarian said the state is restricted by Council 94 rules. “That’s the way the union rules read,” she said. “It’s a built-in overlap; it’s not that we’re choosing to do it. You’ve got to have an opportunity to figure out who you’re going to bump, so in the meantime you have to stay where you are.”

Union leaders also have taken issue with the lack of management jobs being eliminated. According to state figures, 48 non-union workers received layoff notices in November and 17 non-union workers received warnings that their jobs may be eliminated.

“They’re keeping the higher-paying jobs and doing away with the lower-paying ones,” Downey said.

Downey is most upset about the notifications – the so-called List B letters – that warned people that their jobs may be eliminated. “There was no need to do it,” Downey said. “I believe it was just to show the taxpayers, ‘Hey, look what I’m doing.’”

Back at the Depatment of Health, Bennett is still settling into her new job processing medical data involving children in the state. New co-workers have been friendly.

But she still receives reports from her former division at the DEM, telling her the office has fallen weeks behind on the septic system applications since her position was cut.

“I hear it’s not going well,” she said.


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