By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — The district’s 54 office workers will no longer get automatic step raises.
A two-year contract, which was approved unanimously this month by both the school board and the members of the Guilderland Office Workers’ Association, has percentage increases instead.
“The achievement…is we are eliminating and removing the step schedule, just going to a percentage increase,” said board President Colleen O’Connell at the school board’s Jan. 8 meeting as she thanked GOWA and the district’s negotiators — assistant superintendents Neil Sanders, for business, and Lin Severance, for human resources.
“It was unanimously ratified by our group, and that was very satisfying to us because you never know in this climate,” said Sandee Piculell, a secretary at Farnsworth Middle School. She and Grace Meglino, who works at the high school, are co-presidents of GOWA.
Under the Triborough Amendment to the state’s Taylor Law, step increases in a previous contract continue indefinitely even if a new contract hasn’t been negotiated.
“It’s a direction we’d like to move in,” Severance told The Enterprise of negotiating with other bargaining units. “That’s really cool,” she said of a contract without the year-to-year step increases. “I’m really excited about it.”
Severance went on, “Moving in the step schedules tends to be irregular….If you begin with a fair starting salary, everyone works just as hard and should get equal increases.”
Severance said of GOWA, “This unit had a step schedule for many, many years. About 70 percent of the members were off-step, which meant they didn’t get an automatic raise. It seemed more advantageous to get percentage increases across the board,” she said.
Asked if Guilderland is a pioneer in negotiating a contract without step increases, Severance said she was not sure.
“I find it unfair, when everybody does the same quality of work, somebody gets 4 percent and somebody gets no increase,” she said.
Piculell, too, noted that about three-quarters of the office workers are off-step because so many have worked at Guilderland for so long. She noted that Karen Cornell retired last year after more than 40 years with the district. Piculell herself has worked for Guilderland since 1995.
“It’s not always easy work,” she said. “With the changing times and fewer administrators and fewer on the clerical staff, there are increased duties and more to do.”
She said that, last year, GOWA had over 60 members but now has just 54.
What keeps the workers at it, she said, is the camaraderie. “The people are just wonderful. There’s a dedication to the district,” said Piculell. “And I can speak from firsthand experience at the middle school, what keeps us involved is the children. That sustains us.”
Asked the reaction to receiving a 2-percent raise, Piculell said, “Our membership has always been very cognizant that the district is doing what it can with the loss of support from the state. Everyone was very satisfied there was recognition for our hard work.”
GOWA members have a “vast range” of experience and skill levels and therefore a wide range of pay, said Severance.
The pay ranges are divided into three levels, she explained. GOWA, which is affiliated with New York State United Teachers, American Federation of Teachers, and National Education Association, has members with experience ranging from two years to 25 years, said Severance.
Those in Level 1 — clerical workers, many of who work part-time — will earn from $12.40 to $12.80 per hour in the first year of the contract, and from $12.65 to $13.05 in the second year, representing roughly a 2-percent raise.
Those in Level 2 — keyboard specialists — have salaries in the first year of the contract that range from $12.65 to $13.25 per hour, and, in the second year, from $12.90 to $13.50 — again, about a 2-percent increase.
Those in Level 3 — often the secretaries to principals and assistant principals — are paid from $13.75 to $14.55 per hour in the first year, and from $14 to $14.80 in the second year of the contract — again, about a 2-percent raise.
“We’ve provided the unit with a better, more competitive starting salary,” said Severance.
All but two or three of GOWA’s members are under Civil Service protection, said Severance. The new contract has language that defines seniority — for instance for lay-offs and recalls — for those few who are not under Civil Service regulations.
The new contract keeps the same health-insurance coverage as before, with the district paying 80-percent of the cost and the workers paying 20 percent. As the district tries to decrease its health-care payments, Severance called this “a significant gesture,” noting that, for some of the part-time GOWA workers, the health benefits are as much as their salaries.
The contract, which runs from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2014, didn’t take long to negotiate, Severance said. “We met just six or seven times.”
She said, though, that it can be difficult for employees to understand why they aren’t getting larger raises.
“It’s not that we don’t think they deserve the raises,” she said. But, she continued, alluding to the state-set tax-levy cap and the stagnant aid with increased state requirements, “We’re looking at the big picture, with the board of education, for the entire district.”
Referring to all 12 of the district’s bargaining units, Severance went on, “There comes a point as they do a wonderful job advocating for their members, we’re advocating for the financial health of the whole district.”
She concluded, “We appreciate what they do.”