Pushing for 5-day workweek, Berne supervisor lays off two from highway crew

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

A reduced crew continues work Tuesday on the addition to the Berne highway garage, which will add 800 square feet. Superintendent Randy Bashwinger, standing at center, talks to Ed Hampton whose back is to the camera.  Pat Stempel hammers in the foreground and Jason Geel is at back. Last Friday, before Josh Gebe and Pete Becker were laid off, the crew of five poured the foundation for the addition.

BERNE — The town’s highway superintendent — a Republican in a town governed by a council of all Democrats — left on a planned trip to Maine at 2 p.m. last Friday afternoon. That evening, he heard from two of his six full-time highway workers: They had been fired by the town supervisor.

“I was in shock,” said Josh Gebe, 36, who had worked for the department for 15 months.

Peter Becker also had a visit from the supervisor, Kevin Crosier, at his own home on Friday evening.

“They had been praised by the town board for their work,” said Bashwinger. “No one told me anything about it….Both of them have families to support.”

“I have five children,” said Gebe. “It does affect us.”

He said he works on highway maintenance, resurfacing roads, tree-trimming, plowing, pothole repair, maintenance, and mechanical work on town tucks. “We do everything in the shop to repair our own trucks,” he said.

“Right now,” he concluded, “we don’t know what’s going on and how to proceed to support my family.”

“First of all,” Crosier told The Enterprise Tuesday night, “these are layoffs, not terminations.”

Asked the reason for the layoffs, Crosier said, “Mr. Bashwinger wants to keep the highway department closed on Fridays for seven months. A three-day weekend is not acceptable. The taxpayers in the town of Berne should expect when they drive on town highways that the staff is at work on weekdays.

“I know Mr. Bashwinger wants to build decks on Fridays.” Crosier also said he had heard some of the crew worked with Bashwinger building decks, which he said would be unethical manipulation.

“I have never worked with these guys on a Friday,” Bashwinger responded through The Enterprise. “We do not work together on the side.” He used to work in construction before being elected highway superintendent and has done some construction work on his own days off, he said.

Bashwinger says that four 10-hour days of work are far more productive, which saves the taxpayers money. He says Crosier is “blackmailing” the workers into accepting his terms in the ongoing contract negotiations although they prefer the four-day work week and get more done.

Both men agreed that the configuration of the work week was the major sticking point in failed negotiations. The six full-time workers are part of the International Union of Operating Engineers District 106, Local 158. Their contract expired on Jan. 1.

Crosier says the workers gave up an offer of a 2-percent raise for 2016 because they wouldn’t agree to have the four-day workweek limited to eight weeks.

“They turned down the eight weeks, leaving us no choice but to give them zero in 2016,” said Crosier.

He said of figures Bashwinger produced on greatly reduced overtime costs with the compressed work week, “What he is telling you is a sham; it’s about time off and that’s it. We’re just not going to do it...It’s an abuse...I reduced property taxes for three years in a row. We’re going to do it two more years.”

Asked if the town board ever voted on the layoffs of Becker and Gebe, Crosier said they approved the staff reduction as part of adopting the highway budget last fall.

Bashwinger said this week he was at the budget hearing — his first as highway superintendent — and there was no discussion of cutting two employees. He was not aware of it at the time and just became aware of it this week, he said.

“I was the only one that showed up at the budget hearing,” Bashwinger said. “They moved that money without my knowing it.” Further, he called it, “a dirty, lowdown, scumbag action” and said, “I would have flipped out that night,” and that he would not have agreed to two of his workers being cut. He sees the move as tied to the workers’ rejection of the proposed contract.


The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Tool in hand, Randy Bashwinger, Berne’s highway superintendent, gestures on Tuesday to show how the new addition to the town garage will add much needed space. After the town supervisor laid off two of the six full-time workers in a dispute over how to configure their 40-hour workweek, the remaining crew of two-and-a-half is continuing work on the project.


Short staffed

Friday’s layoffs leave Bashwinger with just two-and-a-half of his six full-time workers: Pat Stempel, Ed Hampton, and Jason Geel. One of the men is out on workers’ compensation and another, Geel, works 20 hours a week at the town’s transfer station. Bashwinger said he is not allowed to bring in part-time workers unless the full-time workers are on the job. “The union stipulates, if anyone is laid off, we can’t use part-time workers,” he said.

“I have two-and-a-half people to do 79 miles of road,” he said. “If we have a major snowstorm, the town of Berne residents are going to be screwed.”

Showing the seven different plow routes he has mapped out for each worker and himself, Bashwinger said, “It takes one guy three to four hours to plow his territory. If you pull two off,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head.

Crosier disagreed. “He can bring in as many part-time workers as he wants,” he said of Bashwinger. The stipulation of not hiring part-timers unless the full-time workers are employed doesn’t apply to workers who are laid off, he said. “They don’t exist anymore.”

On plowing, Crosier said, “It’s not rocket science; you plow the road.”

He went on, “We’ve been trying to look at combining town, county, and state plow routes to make it more efficient. Randy’s the guy that can do it. Fifty percent of the time, our trucks are on a town or county highway. Randy’s the savior. He’s my guy.”

Bashwinger also said, “We’re going to keep plugging away. I told my guys, ‘We’re still going to work.’”

On Tuesday morning, Hampton, Stempel, and Geel were working on an 800-square-foot addition to the highway garage. Becker and Gebe had helped pour the foundation on Friday before they were fired.

“I was surprised,” said Hampton. “I didn’t see that coming,” he said of the layoffs. Hampton has worked for the department for 11 years and, in a supervisory role, gets roughly a dollar more an hour than the “$19 and change” the other workers are paid.

“I think it’s outrageous you can lay off people like that,” said Geel, who has worked for the department for six years and so, based on seniority, would be next in line if there were to be another layoff.

Stempel, who has worked for the department for 18 years, said he prefers the 10-hour-a-day, four-days-a-week schedule over the traditional eight-hour, five-days-a-week schedule.

“There were no disciplinary issues and no budget issues,” said Bashwinger, discounting typical reasons for layoffs. “We’re well under budget.” He also said that, from 2009 to 2014, there is $1.5 million in a highway fund balance.

He praised his crew as they worked in the fog and rain Tuesday morning, using carpentry skills, which is not part of their job description.

“They don’t have to do it. It’s because we have a good team. This work is not in their contract,” said Bashwinger. “They’re doing it for the town.”

The crew recently worked on upgrading the park pavilion, too.

Since the town doesn’t have all the tools needed for these projects, Bashwinger brings in his own, he said, and so do crew members. On Tuesday morning, for example, Hampton dashed home to get an eighth-inch paddle bit that he said was needed “to get the nuts flush and put the plate on top.”


Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia
Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier says the taxpayers in Berne won’t stand for highway employees working four 10-hour days a week and that the two workers he laid off on Friday can have their jobs back if the unionized workers agree to a standardized five-day workweek for all but eight weeks of the year.


The layoffs

The only councilmember to answer calls from The Enterprise seeking comment on the abrupt layoffs was Joseph Golden, who serves as the board’s liaison to the highway department and as deputy supervisor. Calls to Karen Schimmer, Dawn Jordan and Wayne Emory were not returned.

Referencing ongoing negotiations on the expired union contract, Golden said, “The only thing I can say is we’re in discussion on this topic….We haven’t been fighting this in public. We’ve been trying to do this peacefully and quietly.”

While Gebe said he had been told by the union representative not to talk about the specifics of the firing, Bashwinger says it is centered on his move to return to a four-day workweek with 10 hours each day instead of the standard five-day week with eight hours each day.

“When Kevin Crosier delivered the letters, he said if they gave up the four 10-hour days, they would have their jobs back...,” said Bashwinger.

“I said to them, the town board cannot carry six full-time workers who are only there four days a week,” Crosier told The Enterprise.

Asked what it would take to get Becker and Gebe back to work, Crosier said, “Two people can make the decision: The guys as a group or Mr. Bashwinger.”

Asked if they agreed to a five-day work week, Gebe and Becker would be re-instated, Crosier, said, “Yes.”

Asked if he planned to lay off more workers if they didn’t agree, Crosier said, “I think four would be the limit,” referring to the number of full-time workers.

Looking through old ledgers, Bashwinger counted up the number of highway workers: In 1997, there were nine full-time highway workers; in 2005, there were eight; in 2015, there were seven.

“We’re doing a lot more work,” he said.

“Even if the guys sign the contract, this paragraph gives the supervisor the right to lay people off,” said Bashwinger, pointing to a page of the contract. “Shame on the union.”

The shop was unionized in 2003 or 2004, he said.

Crosier said the reduction of full-time workers was typical of all municipalities because of the state-imposed tax-levy cap. “You have to get creative,” he said.

The letters, signed by Crosier, delivered to Becker and Gebe, and reviewed by The Enterprise, were nearly identical.

“This is written notice that your position of Heavy Motor Equipment Operator in the Town of Berne highway department will not be continued after March 11, 2016,” Crosier wrote, citing the section of the union contract that says the town is to provide an employee with written notice of a layoff 10 days prior to the layoff; otherwise the town must pay the worker for each day short of that.

As Becker and Gebe had no warning, Crosier wrote that they would receive a one-time payment equal to 80 hours of work.

His letter concludes, “On behalf of the town board and the taxpayers of the Town of Berne, thank you for your past service.”

Efficiency or abuse?

Bashwinger was elected in the fall of 2014 and took office on Jan. 1, 2015.  Last year, from May 18 to Oct. 26, he instituted four 10-hour days. “The town benefits,” he said, noting that it saves a half-hour lunch period and two daily 15-minute breaks for each of the six workers. And, he said, the longer days make for a more efficient work schedule; once a project is underway with the equipment out, it can progress further, meaning fewer overtime hours are needed.

“It was proven very effective last year,” said Bashwinger. “We paid a little over $400 from April to October. The year before, from April to October, the town paid $9,700 in overtime.”

In October, it starts getting dark at 4 p.m., he noted. “I can’t do ditching or tree-trimming when it’s dark. I won’t put the guys in jeopardy.” So, in October, he switched back to the traditional five-day workweek.

Asked if those figures were accurate, Golden said, “It’s prudent not to discuss this at this time. He can make his case. I want to take a few days, take a deep breath.”

Crosier objected strenuously to Mr. Bashwinger’s comparison of the overtime pay in 2014 and 2015. “You can’t compare 2014,” he said. “That was another highway superintendent. Mr. Weaver chose to do it that way. You can’t compare a past highway superintendent. He managed his department differently.”

Later, Crosier said, “The previous highway superintendent wouldn’t hire part-time people....I can make a case that we only need four full-time people, Randy’s so good....I’ve given him $160,000 to bring on part-time people.” Because part-time workers don’t get benefits, Crosier said, “We pay them $16 an hour versus $40. I can have four full-time and a cadre of part-time.”

Crosier also said, “There’s a downside to not paying overtime. These guys depend on that extra money to pay for Christmas and to pay their bills.”

He said, too, “After working eight hours a day, you’re tired....that’s when you get the most out of a guy. What do you do when it’s dark at six in the morning? Sit in the highway garage and wait. This four 10-hour days for seven months is an abuse. That we cannot allow.”

Bashwinger said Crosier’s assertion that the large savings in overtime pay from 2014 to 2015 was because of part-time workers is false. The great majority of money spent on overtime is for paving, said Bashwinger. “Part-time workers do nothing with paving,” he said. “They do strictly mowing, flagging, changing signs and filling potholes. They work from nine to two.”

Bashwinger went on, “The whole problem is, the town board doesn’t want a four-day work week because town residents will think the workers just want a three-day weekend.”

In order to allay concerns about the highway department being closed on Fridays, the highway workers, on their own, came up with a plan that three of them would work Mondays and three of them would work Fridays, Bashwinger said. He showed The Enterprise a written copy of the formal proposal.

“Town Hall is closed Friday, but that’s OK,” he said. Bashwinger went on, “These guys were willing to do that to satisfy the town board. I thought that was completely unbelievable,” he said with admiration for his workers.

Bashwinger met with the town board in executive session last May, he said. “They wouldn’t allow it. I said, ‘Monday through Thursday is in the union contract.’”

Asked why the board wouldn’t accept the compromise of having half the crew work on Mondays and the other half on Fridays, still each working 80 hours a week, Crosier said, “What they want is a three-day weekend at the expense of the Berne taxpayer....They’d all be working together only two days, 20 hours.” Actually, under the rejected plan, six department employees would be working together on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for a total of sixty hours.

“What happens if a guy calls in sick or goes on vacation?” asked Crosier. “They want a three-day weekend; I get that....Last year, Mr. Bashwinger told the town board, he’d only do it for three months. He did it six months. What’s next — a year?”

“We saved a lot of money and got much more done, double or triple the amount of work we would have done in five eight-hour days,” said Bashwinger who uses part-time workers on big projects as well as the full-time workers.


The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Berne Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger says his workers are being “blackmailed” by the town supervisor to accept a five-day rather than a four-day workweek even though, he says, the 10-hour days are far more productive, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars annually.



Bashwinger pointed proudly to improvements at the department since he took office 14 months ago. And Crosier said that, in recent months, he had frequently praised the highway department at town board meetings.

On Tuesday, Bashwinger pointed to a steep bank abutting the garage parking area and said the “hill of rotted trees” had been cleared over three months by inmates in Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple’s jail release program. “We had four inmates and the only cost was pizza for lunch, $30 a day,” said Bashwinger.

“Across the way is an old dump,” he said. “We got rid of about $10,000 worth of old plow blades,” he said. They were sold to the Port of Albany when metal prices were high, he said, which paid for new gas and diesel pumps at the garage.

Also, never-used equipment was sold, netting $14,000, he said.

Bashwinger guessed the main garage was built in the 1960s. Behind it, an older garage caught fire this year. “We caught it before it burned down,” he said. “I told the town board it would cost $14,000 to put new doors on it and fix the electrical...They wanted to wait for a grant....We’ve been unplugging things and running lead cords to warm up engines” on equipment in the old garage.

Crosier said the town’s focus had been on a project with county financing for a shared salt shed. “We needed that salt shed. It’s a $300,000-plus project. We’ve told Randy, when that’s done, the next big project will be a garage,” said Crosier.

“We have 23 pieces of equipment,” said Bashwinger. Since 2008, he said, the town has purchased a backhoe, a small dump truck, a used paver, and two trailers.

When he arrived, the vast majority of vehicles weren’t current on their required inspections, said Bashwinger. “Mr. Weaver’s hands were tied by the town board,” he said of his predecessor.

The town board has nothing to do with inspections, said Crosier; that is up to the highway superintendent. “He’s just trying to embarrass Mr. Weaver,” said Crosier.

Now, Bashwinger has a large board on the garage wall, listing each vehicle and its inspection date. A nearby board lists each department employee and their work detail

The garage is used for town functions, too, said Bashwinger. This Saturday, for example, it will be the site of a rabies clinic. “This all has to be cleared out,” he said. “There will be hundreds of dogs and cats in here.”

The garage is also a site for hazardous waste days and meetings, he said.

Bashwinger is proud of small improvements, too. New reflective street signs, with the Berne town logo, are stacked in the garage hallway. “The old signs were not consistent. You couldn’t read some of them,” said Bashwinger. “The town used to pay up to $60” for a street sign, he said; Bashwinger worked with the town of Guilderland and got them for the cost of the sign, $17 each, he said.

“I have a pile of 3,000 tons of material,” he said of covering that will be put on dirt roads — the majority of the town’s roads — over the course of three months. “I have two to three crews going all the time, all with no overtime.”

Advocacy Day

This year, about 750 county and town highway officials converged in Albany for the “Local Roads Matter” advocacy campaign.

“He took the entire workforce to a political rally,” said Crosier of Bashwinger. “They’re supposed to be working. The job of a Berne highway worker is not to lobby. They don’t belong down there. We spent $1,500 on salary so they  could eat hotdogs at the Capitol.”

Crosier said he arrived at this number because, in addition to the roughly $19 an hour the workers are paid, they also receive health insurance, a dental and eyeglasses plan, four weeks of paid vacation, sick leave, and personal time. “That probably costs us $40 an hour,” he said. “At $40 an hour, they went to the capitol...It’s not a club. This is public money and the public deserves accountability. He’s abusing it and we’re not going to put up with it.”

Crosier further complained that Bashwinger had used the senior van to go to the event.

Last year, for Advocacy Day at the state legislature, “I took the foreman and one guy to get CHIPs money for roads from the state; we went from nine to one....Senator Amedore said we were the only Albany County town to show up. We got $176,000 in CHIPs money,” he said of the The Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program.

Money for the highway budget this year comes from $604,200 in property taxes, $410,000 in county sales tax, $183,000 from the state Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program, and, $175,300 from the fund balance.

Last Wednesday, Bashwinger went to Advocacy Day again and took Becker, Gebe, and Geel with him, he said. Bashwinger believes it helps the department secure funds to make an appearance at Advocacy Day. He said he checked with the town clerk to see if the van would be free and, since it was, used it as he considered it a town use. He said he and the three workers were away for three hours, from 9 a.m. till noon.

“It’s a great use of employees,” Bashwinger said of attending Advocacy Day. “There were still three full-time workers and two part-time workers on the job.”

Rift widens

With the unseasonably warm weather and the longer daylight hours, Bashwinger announced he would be returning to the four-day workweek. “I was going to switch on March 28. I gave 18 days notice,” he said, sending his message to the town clerk to be disbursed to the board members.

“I sent a message to all town board members, “ said Bashwinger. “We are ahead of schedule with the weather.” On Monday, crews were set to do ditch work and trim trees, he said.

“We have two major projects we are trying to finish up — the pavilion and the addition to the highway garage,” Bashwinger wrote to the town board members. “The way to get this done is to do compressed work days. I have a control of these guys and projects as you guys have a control of your town budget and everyday activities.”

“I am sorry but the town board does not support this,” Crosier emailed Bashwinger on March 10. “I am afraid we will have to review this and make a decision which may make some unhappy….”

Bashwinger said, “That was the last I heard till my guys called me and said they were laid off.”

After Becker and Gebe were fired, Bashwinger wrote Sunday evening, March 13, on a Facebook page named “The Happenings in the Town of Berne,” a page maintained by William Keal who twice ran unsuccessfully for town supervisor on the Republican line, that he hadn’t received on word from the supervisor or town board about it.

At 8:11 p.m. on March 13, he received an email from Crosier with the layoff notices enclosed, saying Gebe and Becker were no longer be covered under the town’s workers’ compensation insurance and were removed from the list of drivers on the town’s auto policy. Crosier suggested meeting on Monday, but, as of Tuesday, Bashwinger said, he had heard nothing.

He does not know what will happen next. “The guys might cave in to the blackmail to come back,” Bashwinger said. “I have no control….This is crazy. I have no say in this.”

Bashwinger outlined three goals: “Number one is getting my guys back working. Number two is to get work done. Number three is to let residents see what crap politics this is.”

Crosier, who used to work as a firefighter for the city of Albany said an old captain had told him, “This is public service, not self service.”

He went on about Bashwinger, “He’s serving himself and six others. Every other highway department works five days a week. This is outrageous and unacceptable. Some moms and dads are working two jobs. How will they feel if the highway department is closed?”

“This whole thing is so childish, it’s disgusting...I question sometimes why I got into this,” said Bashwinger. “I hate politics. We all work for the taxpayers. We should work together.”

Crosier said it was “a crazy idea” to think political differences were causing the rift. “We’ve done everything to help Mr. Bashwinger,” he said. “I don’t look at him as a Republican. I look at him as a highway superintendent.”

“The whole point of being elected was to serve the taxpayers,” Bashwinger said.  He said of his workers, “These guys are sitting ducks. That’s not what I want…If this doesn’t get brought out, this blackmailing, guys getting pushed around will keep happening.”

“I have to think of 2,800 people in the town, not just what’s best for six people,” concluded Crosier. He said of the town board, “We’re in control of the money.”

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