Fact-finders in state-union talks recommend employee wage increases

Fact-finders brought into collective bargaining talks between the state and its employee unions have recommended wage increases for the union members — and rejected the Hogan administration’s proposal to make raises contingent upon the state exceeding revenue projections.

Documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun show independent arbitrators have made nonbinding recommendations to negotiators for the state and two union bargaining groups whose contracts expire Dec. 31 — AFSCME Council 3 and the combined Maryland Professional Employees Council/American Federation of Teachers.

State Budget Secretary David R. Brinkley informed Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch of the fact-finders’ conclusion Dec. 1. In letters to Miller and Busch, he gave an appraisal of progress of the talks with both groups. Brinkley said the state is “actively engaging in good faith negotiations” with MPEC/AFT, representing professional employees, but said it appeared AFSCME was “not interested in bargaining in good faith.”

“The administration has put forward numerous proposals to address critical recruitment and retention issues, but they have been unwilling to discuss these,” Brinkley wrote.

Brinkley’s accusation intensifies a running feud between the Republican administration of Gov. Larry Hogan and the Democratic-leaning AFSCME. Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Council 3, said he could not get into details of the bargaining but rejected the accusation of bad faith.

“We’re open to looking at every single proposal, and they know that,” Moran said. “I am really disturbed to see that the state is engaging in such negative characterizations of the bargaining process.”

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said that “as these negotiations are legally required to be confidential, the Governor's Office will not be commenting on any materials that were leaked to The Baltimore Sun” because it could violate fair labor practices.

Mayer said the administration “will continue negotiating in good faith with all labor organizations.”

Under state law, if bargaining for a contract hasn’t concluded by Oct. 25, either union or management can request that an independent fact-finder look at the proposals each side has on the table.

In the case of AFSCME, arbitrator James Oldham held a hearing on the talks last month. His recommendation on wages was to accept the union’s proposal of a $1,500 flat salary increase for the fiscal year that starts next July 1, but hold off on its demand for a matching increase the following year.

Oldham based his recommendation on a finding that “even after the Great Recession ended in 2011, the employees represented by AFSCME have been almost at a standstill on wages and step increases.” In addition to the $1,500 raise, he also recommended step increases that can bring workers additional pay the longer they have worked — but only for the following budget year.

Moran said a $1,500 raise would be “very helpful” to his members, whose average salary he estimated at $40,000 a year.

In rejecting the union’s requests for fiscal 2020 increases, Oldham pointed to “uncertain times” and said “it is wise to be conservative going forward.” However, he backed a union proposal to raise the shift differential paid for nighttime work to $2 from what he called a “meager” 62.5 cents.

In the professional employees’ negotiations, the state proposed a 1 percent cost-of-living raise for health care, scientific, engineering and administrative workers effective in April 2019 — but made it contingent on the state exceeding its revenue projections by at least $75 million.

The union, meanwhile, had sought a 2 percent raise as of next July 1, along with a $500 bonus.

Fact finder Joyce M. Klein recommended the professional employees be guaranteed a raise, pointing to the difficulty the state has had in attracting and retaining such workers when Maryland’s larger counties pay significantly higher salaries for comparable positions. However, she proposed limiting the raise to 1 percent and having it kick in Jan. 1, 2019.

If state revenues exceed projections by $75 million, she said, the employees should receive an additional 0.5 percent increase and a $500 bonus in April 2019.

Klein rejected a union proposal that would increase retention bonuses for nurses from $3,000 to $5,000 and expand them beyond hospitals that operate around the clock. The fact finder acknowledged the state’s problems filling such positions but pointed to its “strained fiscal circumstances.”

Debra Perry, president of AFT Health Care Maryland, declined to get into the specifics of the fact finder’s recommendations. She said her union is still bargaining with the state in good faith and will continue to do so.

“We do believe our employees deserve a raise and more,” she said. “After all, we are the people who do the work providing Maryland citizens with services and we think we should be a priority.”

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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