In what one of the state’s largest public employee unions is calling a “victory for the collective bargaining process,” the town of Weymouth has been ordered to rehire 14 laid-off school crossing guards and give them three years of back pay.
The town is appealing the July 12 ruling by the state Department of Labor Relations, which some say could have implications for communities in Massachusetts that are balancing financial constraints with obligations to unionized employees.
“It’s an important victory not only for the [Weymouth] traffic supervisors, but also for the collective bargaining process,” said Jim Durkin, spokesman for Council 93 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represented the Weymouth workers and includes about 35,000 public employees in Massachusetts.
“Anyone in a government leadership position who attempts to deny our members their rights by circumventing a collective bargaining agreement should know that AFSCME will fight as long as it takes to ensure they are held accountable to the law,” he said.
Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the ruling was troubling.
“Essentially cities and towns should be able to determine where [and how] they want to make cuts,” he said. “And the notion that individuals will be receiving back pay for work they didn’t even perform is disturbing. That’s a ruling that communities should be worried about.”
Margaret Sullivan, the hearing officer for the Department of Labor Relations, sided with the traffic guards, whose jobs were eliminated in June 2010 as a budget-cutting measure when the town was experiencing serious financial problems. To cut $100,000 from his budget, Police Chief Richard Grimes chose to eliminate the crossing guard positions rather than lay off two patrol officers.
School officials tried unsuccessfully over the summer to replace the guards with volunteers, and, once classes resumed, hired nine non-union workers at a lower wage. Those employees were paid through the School Department budget.
Although the town said the jobs had different duties and responsibilities, Sullivan ruled that the old and new positions were essentially the same and had the “same primary function” of helping students safely cross streets.
Sullivan ruled that Weymouth officials broke state labor laws by failing to bargain with the union over both the layoffs and creation of the replacement jobs.
She ordered the town to offer the laid-off workers their old jobs and reimburse them for lost pay.
Mayor Sue Kay said Weymouth was appealing “because we don’t agree with the decision” and its implications for budget decisions. The town has until Aug. 2 to present its rationale for the appeal, which will be heard by the three-member Commonwealth Employment Relations Board.
“We feel the department head — the police chief — should have been able to deal with the deficit the way he saw fit, like all department heads had to,” Kay said. “The police chief chose [to let go] traffic supervisors over police officers for public safety.”
Kay said the town had not yet calculated the potential cost of rehiring and reimbursing the laid-off crossing guards. The current “safety guards” are paid $30 a day for two hours of work and receive a fluorescent vest.
The old positions were paid $39.27 for two hours’ work, plus paid sick, personal, and bereavement leave, a uniform and cleaning allowance, sick leave buy-back provisions, and extra pay for those who had been on the job for 15 years or more. The contract also included a two-step wage scale.
Patrick O’Connor, vice president of the Weymouth Town Council, said the state ruling served as a warning for other communities looking to cut costs. “I think anything a town does that backfires could be used as a learning example by other communities looking to do the same thing,” he said.
“I can understand when you’re trying to save money and the short-term fix was there,” he added. But “the long-term repercussions weren’t considered. There should have been some kind of negotiation, maybe over three years. But now if the appeal doesn’t [succeed], we’re going to take a hit.”
O’Connor noted that town council members had spoken out against the budget decision in 2010, and said he hoped the mayor would decide against appealing the state ruling.
The town of Arlington also considered eliminating its school crossing guards during the financial hard times of 2010, but the majority of the positions remain funded and unionized, according to Arlington Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine.
He said officials would look at the Weymouth ruling closely before any future consideration of cost-saving measures that might affect unionized positions.