Maine Turnpike Authority cutting 20 positions, union says layoffs illegal

Peter Mills, acting executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, stands by a turnpike tollbooth in Portland recently.
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Peter Mills, acting executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, stands by a turnpike tollbooth in Portland recently.
By Matthew Stone, BDN Staff
Posted June 20, 2012, at 1:35 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Turnpike Authority is eliminating 20 positions from its payroll as the organization adapts to a need for fewer toll collectors and tries to get by with fewer managers.

The position eliminations will mostly affect the supervisor ranks, Peter Mills, the turnpike authority’s executive director, said Wednesday.

But the layoffs are illegal, union officials say, because of a bargaining impasse that has left turnpike authority workers without a contract since the end of last year.

“We have a lot of supervisors,” he said. “A lot of those jobs hark back to a time when there were 300 or more toll collectors. We’re top heavy.”

The changes will save $1.25 million annually, according to Mills. The turnpike authority currently takes in about $103 million annually in tolls and another $3 million annually from operating its service plazas.

News of the position cuts comes the same week the turnpike authority is holding three public hearings on its proposal to raise tolls in order to generate about $26 million annually in additional revenue.

The cuts also come the same week the Maine State Employees Association filed a complaint with the Maine Labor Relations Board accusing the turnpike authority of negotiating in bad faith. The turnpike authority hasn’t negotiated a new contract for its unionized employees since the latest agreement expired at the end of 2011.

Mills said the position cuts are unrelated to the proposed toll increases and the bargaining impasse. “I would have done it anyway, because it needs to be done,” he said.

The layoffs violate the terms turnpike employees have been working under since their contract expired last December, said Brian Oelberg, the Maine State Employees Association’s chief negotiator for the turnpike authority’s employees unit.

“It violates labor law because of the status quo we were supposed to be operating under,” Oelberg said. “We are looking into what remedy we can pursue.”

Without a new contract, turnpike employees have been working under a “status quo” doctrine and the terms of their expired contract, he said. Mills said those contract terms only address wages and working conditions, not staffing levels.

Oelberg said the union supports turnpike management in making changes to improve the organization’s efficiency, but said managers should look to their own ranks for cuts.

“They should be looking at their own compensation packages because they’ve seen a lot larger increases than their unionized employees have,” he said.

In the turnpike’s fare collection division, Mills said the organization will eliminate 13 supervisory positions and consolidate their duties into four newly created positions. A custodian in that division also will be affected.

In the road maintenance division, Mills said, the authority plans to eliminate three clerk positions. In addition, the authority doesn’t plan to call six seasonal plow drivers back to work when the winter season hits.

The customer service division will lose one position, Mills said, but the affected employee already has been transferred to another job.

Mills said he informed the affected employees on Tuesday. He said the eliminations won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2013, giving affected employees time to make plans for retirement or move to different positions within the organization if they open up.

“These people are loyal people,” Mills said. “I’m happy to have them around for another six months.”

The position eliminations are the result of an organizational study Mills said he requested several months ago. He said he challenged his managers to develop a plan to get by with fewer supervisor-level positions.

The turnpike authority board will take up the position-cutting proposal at a meeting on Thursday, according to Mills.

This is among the first instances of layoffs in turnpike authority history, Mills said. The authority has eliminated hundreds of positions over the past 15 years through attrition, especially as more and more toll collection has become electronic.

The authority had nearly 900 employees in the mid-1990s. Today, that number is down to 312 full-time employees and about 100 seasonal and on-call workers, according to the turnpike authority.

The turnpike authority employs about 125 toll collectors full time and another 80 on a part-time and on-call basis.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/06/20/politics/maine-turnpike-authority-cutting-20-positions/ printed on December 20, 2014