Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill to stop taxpayer money from paying state employees to do union work after an anonymous whistleblower sent a package of information unveiling the practice.
State employees – known as union stewards or representatives – are able to take time off from their jobs to conduct union business while still being paid their normal wages by the state – known as union business leave. In 2015 alone this practice cost the state 121,000 work hours and over $4 million, according to a 2016 study.
The bill, entitled An Act Concerning Union Stewards and Compensation From the State, was brought before the Labor and Public Employees Committee on Tuesday. It would require union representatives to use their sick, vacation or personal leave time if they want to conduct union business during their regularly scheduled shifts.
Testifying in opposition to the bill was Ron McLellan, president of Connecticut Employees Union Independent SEIU local 511 and lead plant operator at Central Connecticut State University.
According to documents obtained under a freedom of information request, McLellan took 201 union leave days in 2015 while earning $111,000 in pay and fringe benefits.
McLellan testified that union business leave time is “a good value and service to the state,” and noted that union representatives do not receive any additional pay for their union work.
However, during union leave time the employee’s shift must be covered, which results in overtime spending for the state. This is particularly problematic in agencies that require constant staffing, like the Department of Correction.
The DOC was the subject of the whistleblower package mailed to lawmakers. The contents included detailed calendars showing when DOC employees had taken time off for union business when they were regularly scheduled to work. This costs taxpayers twice because the state money pays the first employee for the union activity and a second worker to cover the shift.
In some cases, the calendars showed employees had not actually showed up for their normal job for more than a month because they were conducting union business.
Much of the union leave time outlined in the whistleblower package bumped up against weekends and scheduled off-duty time so the employee would never show up for work. In one case, David Caron – vice president of the AFSCME local 391 and DOC employee – didn’t show up to work at McDougall-Walker Correctional Institute from January 10th until April 5th.
The days used for union leave included weekends and holidays. DOC union leave accounted for 45,726 hours in 2015 for a total of almost $1.5 million.
The House Republican Caucus cited these documents specifically in their testimony to the labor committee. They also wrote that “union stewards use ‘release time’ which may be used to serve union members but can also be used for lobbying, campaigning, soliciting grievances, union recruiting and negotiating for higher wages and benefits – all at taxpayer expense.”
The Republicans went on to say the practice is “absurd” and that the state “actually pays people to negotiate against the state itself in some cases.”
Lori Pelletier, president of Connecticut AFL-CIO, Stephen Anderson, president of the CSEA-SEIU Local 2001 and Jan Hochadel, president of the American Federation of Teachers, testified in opposition to the bill claiming that union leave time is a “cost benefit to the state.”
“If enacted this legislation would force all union/management meetings to be held after work hours thus causing an added expense to the process and delay the handling of issues that might have arisen possibly causing discord in the workplace because of these delays,” Pelletier wrote in her testimony.
The bill was brought before the Labor and Public Employees Committee on Tuesday along with several other bills concerning public sector unions.
Legislation that would exclude retirement benefits from collective bargaining, move new hires to a defined contribution plan, and increase the prevailing wage threshold were all brought before the committee, which went late into the night for a second week in a row.
The public hearing brought out large numbers of union members and union leaders said that it was an “all hands on deck moment.” Two overflow rooms had to be opened to accommodate the large number of people, many clad in union t-shirts.
Yankee Institute was the only other organization to offer testimony in support of the union steward bill. In her testimony, Yankee Institute policy director, Suzanne Bates, wrote that the $4 million spent paying employees for union leave time in 2015 hurt the state at a time of big deficits.
“This is a significant amount of money in any given year,” Bates wrote. “But in a year when the state is cutting spending for many worthy programs this is particularly egregious.”