State workers union files lawsuit over longevity pay

Posted Aug. 02, 2010, at 8:47 p.m.
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Maine Attorney General Janet Mills speaks to reporters Thursday  afternoon after two officers shot and killed an armed man near Togus in Augusta on July 8, 2010. (WILLIAM P. DAVIS/ BANGOR DAILY NEWS)    (WEB EDITION PHOTO)
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CAPTION Maine Attorney General Janet Mills speaks to reporters Thursday afternoon after two officers shot and killed an armed man near Togus in Augusta on July 8, 2010. (WILLIAM P. DAVIS/ BANGOR DAILY NEWS) (WEB EDITION PHOTO)

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine State Employees Association has filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the current state budget that eliminated longevity pay for state workers in the last budget year discriminates against older workers.

Attorney General Janet Mills said Monday the suit is moot, because lawmakers restored longevity pay in this budget year.

“And there are several other legal defenses to this lawsuit, and we will vigorously defend the state if we are ever served with the suit,” she said.

The complaint was filed in federal District Court. For the case to advance, the MSEA must formally serve the state within 120 days, said Jeffrey Young, the attorney for MSEA.

“It is not rational or reasonably related to any goal to balance the budget of the state on the backs of senior, long-term and older employees,” he said.

Once they have completed 15 years on the job, many state employees begin receiving longevity pay at the following hourly rates: 30 cents an hour for 15-20 years and 40 cents an hour for 20 or more years.

Young said the lawsuit, filed on behalf of union President Bruce Hodsdon and three other union members, seeks to have the federal court find the state in violation of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Equal Protection clauses of both the federal and state constitutions. It also seeks to have the suit apply to all state workers affected by the budget provision, which cost the workers — but saved the state — roughly $2.3 million, according to the legislative budget office.

“Defendant has engaged in a statewide pattern or practice of employment discrimination, both intentional and systemic, on the basis of age in eliminating the longevity pay of long-term senior state employees effective July 1, 2009,” the suit alleges.

Lawmakers who negotiated the budget provision were blunt. The section eliminating longevity pay in the budget was part of a package of personnel cost cuts needed to bring the budget into balance.

“Let’s be clear here,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “This was all discussed and negotiated. The alternative was further layoffs.”

He said other budget provisions also reduced worker pay instead of layoffs, including the “shutdown days” where most of state government is closed and workers have an unpaid day off. He said lawmakers discussed all of the provisions affecting state workers as a package, and there certainly was no intent by lawmakers to discriminate against older workers in any way.

“I think this is a baseless claim,” said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, the GOP senator on the committee. “The package as a whole impacted all state employees, across the board. I think it is a false argument to take the longevity out of that overall package and make a claim of discrimination.”

He agreed with Diamond that there was no intent by lawmakers to discriminate against any group of state workers and when all of the personnel cuts are taken as a whole, it is clear all state workers shared the “pain” of the budget.

Diamond said the lawsuit is just one more uncertainty for the budget writers in the next Legislature. He said the $2.3 million is not a lot in the scope of the overall state budget, but it will be yet another “budget hole” if the suit is successful.

“I hope the court acts quickly,” he said.

Rosen said while there have been rumors of a lawsuit for about a year, he still was somewhat surprised the union was going forward with a suit “against the people of the State of Maine” after lawmakers restored longevity pay in the current budget year.

“I think we would be better off if we had a positive discussion about issues instead of filing suits,” he said.

Under the union agreement, longtime state workers get the additional pay on top of any merit pay or inflationary pay increases. The suit argues the elimination of longevity pay is significant to those affected. For example Hodsdon, a 32-year state worker, was receiving $20 a week in longevity pay, or about $1,040 a year.

Mills said the state would file a formal response when it is served with the lawsuit. She said among the arguments the state will likely use in its formal response is the finding by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that there was no basis for that agency taking action on a similar age complaint filed with them.

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