Town board has a legal right to lay off unneeded workers

To the Editor:

The past several weeks have brought a storm of commentary about a labor relations issue concerning the town of Berne and the town’s employees in the highway department. Many things have been said in anger, many were erroneous, and many were injurious.  We are writing to dispel some of those misconceptions.

The town board is charged with providing essential services and overseeing the financial health of the town. We evaluate the needs of each town department; appraise how best to allocate funds; and carefully balance the requests for equipment, supplies, and manpower at the optimum levels needed.

We have been successful fulfilling our responsibilities: We’ve supported town services; we’ve lowered property taxes three years in a row; and we’ve received an excellent report from the State Comptroller’s auditor who evaluated our practices. The town of Berne is in extremely good financial shape because of the close scrutiny given to each expenditure.

Last year, the town board allocated nearly $500,000 for the purchase of new equipment for the highway department.  We replaced old trucks and machines for which the cost of repair exceeded the return on productivity.  We recognized the need and responded positively to it.

We also supported an addition to the highway garage for better storage of equipment, and secured a grant that will fund a new salt shed. That shed will reduce the amount of salt lost through exposure to the elements, and insure the dissolved salt will not reach any streams or aquifers.

The town board’s financial responsibility also includes determination of manpower needs. We determine the number of workers required to efficiently accomplish the tasks assigned to each department, and fund those necessary jobs.

The question currently surrounding highway department manpower centers on how best to use the highway employees.  Should they work five eight-hour days, or should they work four 10-hour days?  On the surface, it would seem of little difference; both equal a 40 -hour workweek.

Why should the town board object if the number of work hours is the same? And should that compressed workweek be extended for seven months of the year?

The town board has not endorsed the four 10-hour days for the following reasons:

— The four-day workweek reduces manpower available to the town;

— There is the need for five-day coverage of highway responsibilities; and

— Our concerns for the productivity of our workers.

We are told that a week of four 10-hour days is sufficient to complete highway-related tasks.  We looked carefully at this proposition. We currently employ six full-time, benefit-eligible employees for a full five-day week (the equivalent of 30 workers: 6 employees x 5 days).

When the workweek is compressed to four days, the work crew essentially shrinks to 24 workers (6 employees x 4 days).  Average those workers out across five days, and it equals 4.8 workers available to complete five days worth of work.

With what is essentially a reduced work crew, the highway superintendent contends he is still getting all work completed.  If the workers can finish their work in just four days, then we must ask: Do we need six full-time, benefit-eligible employees to do the work?

In answer, we were told the longer days make the workers more productive.  But is this true? We have no proof, but 10-hour days doing manual labor in the heat of summer and in the snows of winter, makes it seem unlikely.  The question of fatigue arises, and, with that, issues of safety to the workers and to the public.  We remain doubtful.

Furthermore, we have seen how quickly unforeseen events occur, how these events can require immediate attention, how quickly they can get out of control. These events can happen on weekends, but at least when the highway department works a five-day week, the town has the advantage of a full work crew available one more day of the week.

We know where to contact the workers, know they’ll be in town, ready to do the work needed.  We also know it will not cost the town taxpayers overtime to address these unexpected tasks.

These concerns shaped our response to the highway superintendent’s imposition of the compressed workweek.  We understand everyone would prefer a shorter workweek and longer weekends, but we remain convinced the traditional five-day workweek for our highway department serves the town best.  We feel the taxpayer should not shoulder the unnecessary cost of extra employees.

Last year, the town board acquiesced to the highway superintendent’s decision to institute a four-day workweek from May through the end of October.  In accordance with the labor agreement with the union, it was his prerogative to do so, and he reassured us the compressed workweek would never exceed six months.

The town board was not comfortable with his decision, especially for such a long period of six months, and we articulated our concerns to the highway superintendent.  He argued the merits of his unilateral decision, and since it was the first time such working conditions were enacted, we determined to cooperate with him, and evaluate the outcome at the end of what we considered a trial period.

Needless to say, the town board was then very surprised when the highway superintendent unilaterally decided to impose the compressed workweek again this year, extending it to seven months without discussion with the town board.

This only served to heighten our concerns; the highway superintendent had reneged on his assurance that the compressed workweek would never extend beyond six months, so might he continue to extend it into a full year?   

While the highway superintendent may be entitled to shape the workweek, it is the town board’s responsibility to oversee the financial health and wellbeing of the town; it is our responsibility to provide the best services possible to our residents.  We do not believe a compressed workweek accomplishes those goals, and would have appreciated the opportunity to discuss our concerns with the highway superintendent.

Faced with the unilateral imposition of the compressed workweek and the consequent loss of manpower inherent to it, the town board was compelled to examine the possibility that the highway department is overstaffed with too many employees.

The town’s attorney has affirmed the town board’s legal right to lay off unneeded employees, and, in this instance, by virtue of the highway superintendent’s imposed work schedule, we have been told only 4.8 employees are needed to do the job.  We questioned this vigorously, but the continued use of the compressed workweek reinforces our perception: Fewer workers are needed than are now employed.

It is never easy to lay off friends and neighbors, individuals who are integral members of our community, with families to support.  Yet, we have an obligation to all the taxpayers of Berne. We must responsibly meet that obligation, and though we hoped to reach a different outcome, found we had no recourse but to act.  

The highway superintendent has chosen to make unsubstantiated public accusations about corruption in a town government that has reduced property taxes three years running, a town government that has supported the highway department with over a half-million dollars in capital improvements, and a town government that has congratulated him personally on the improvements at the highway garage.  He has also chosen to characterize our budget management as “a dirty, low-down, scumbag action” (Altamont Enterprise, March 16, 2016).

If putting the taxpayer first is the highway superintendent’s idea of an unsavory action, then so be it.

We believe differently.

Kevin Crosier, town supervisor

Wayne Emory

Joseph Golden

Dawn G. Jordan

Karen Schimmer

Editor’s note: See related stories about the lay offs and a protest that followed.

 Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger’s comment  “a dirty, low-down, scumbag action” was in reference to the town board members not telling him they had removed two workers from his budget.

More Letters to the Editor

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.