State workers back on the job, but union, LePage still at odds over handling of shutdown

Gov. Paul LePage speaks with reporters outside his office at the State House on Thursday, Oct. 10.
Gov. Paul LePage speaks with reporters outside his office at the State House on Thursday, Oct. 10.
Posted Oct. 18, 2013, at 1:08 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 18, 2013, at 4:54 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The director of Maine’s largest public sector union said Friday that Gov. Paul LePage tried to squeeze contract concessions out of state workers during negotiations to return laid-off employees to their jobs after the partial U.S. government shutdown ended on Wednesday.

Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, said that during closed-door negotiations, LePage pushed a deal that would have made recalling state workers more difficult and given the governor an option not to provide back pay. The union refused to sign off on the proposal.

Quint said the administration’s proposal would have made recalling laid-off workers to their original positions more difficult, and said language in the proposed deal would have given the governor a way out of providing back pay, which the federal government has promised to provide for federally funded state employees.

“Once we saw the actual language [proposed in the deal], there were so many holes in it that you could drive a Mack truck through,” Quint said. “It would have allowed the governor to back out of paying back wages.”

But documents outlining the administration’s proposals, provided by one of LePage’s negotiators, didn’t gel with that telling of events.

The administration’s proposal, as spelled out in the documents, makes room for two possible scenarios: If Washington provides money for federally funded employees to receive back pay — which is what ended up happening — the workers would receive the money. If no back pay was made available, the administration would allow state employees who were laid off to use vacation time to fill in the gap.

The governor’s proposal also aimed to allow all workers to return to their original positions, no strings attached.

“Neither of those scenarios would have been allowed under the current contract,” said Cynthia Montgomery, chief counsel in the state’s Office of Employee Relations and one of the administration’s union negotiators.

At the heart of the disagreement is whether the union’s current contract with the administration was adequate to meet the mutually agreed upon goals of navigating the damage created by the shutdown, that all laid-off workers be put back in their original positions and provided back pay for hours lost.

The two sides had been negotiating while gridlock in D.C. continued, and had even agreed to a tentative deal for enduring the shutdown with as little impact on state employees as possible. But when the shutdown ended, those conversations fell apart.

The union said that with the shutdown over and federal money flowing once again, the current contract would provide a path back to normalcy. The administration said a supplemental agreement was still necessary because the current contract would not have allowed each worker to go back to the job they held before they were laid off.

That’s because state employees with seniority have something called “displacement rights.” Those rights allow an employee with seniority who is affected by a layoff to “bump” a less-senior employee out of a job the worker targeted by layoff previously held. The bumped worker then takes the layoff instead.

The mechanism of the contract would not allow for a clean reset, the administration said, and would have left more than 20 employees in different jobs than they had before the shutdown. It put forward a proposal that would have allowed for that reset, but the union on Thursday balked, saying its contract was sufficient.

With no deal in hand Thursday night, after receiving confirmation from Washington that the federal government would reimburse the workers, LePage unilaterally ordered all laid-off employees back to their original posts.

“It is unfortunate that we were unable to execute an agreement with the union, but they were dragging their feet and we couldn’t wait any longer,” said LePage.

About 100 state employees whose jobs are funded by federal dollars had been laid off during the shutdown as a result of federal revenue streams drying up while congressional leaders jockeyed for a deal to fund the government.

Amid all the murky details and suspicion from both sides, a question emerges: If the LePage administration says the union contract did not allow for a clean reset, with all laid-off employees returning to their original posts, did LePage violate the contract by ordering that very reset on Thursday?

“To say it’s a violation is to draw a legal conclusion that I’m not prepared to draw,” Montgomery said. “But at the time [Thursday] when the governor looked over things and said it was best to put people back, we knew at that time that MSEA was not going to object to that.”

When asked whether the back-to-work order took place within the confines of the union’s contract, Quint demurred.

“We hope so,” he said.

LePage and the MSEA, which represents about 15,000 public- and private-sector workers, have had a contentious relationship since the governor took office in January 2011. The union worked without a contract from July 2011 until agreeing to a new deal this year. It also filed a complaint — since dropped — against his administration with the Maine Labor Relations Board and has clashed with him over his advocacy for so-called “right to work” policies.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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