Amendment extends highway workers’ four-day workweek, without board approval

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer
“... This secret deal with a union rep by the supervisor was the fulfillment of the GOP chairman’s ridiculous ‘Berne Lives Matter’ campaign promise to the employees, in my opinion,” writes Berne Councilman Joel Willsey, a Democrat, in a letter to The Enterprise editor this week. Randy Bashwinger, the GOP chairman and Berne highway superintendent, had organized a protest at Berne Town Hall in 2016.

BERNE — Two amendments, one of which extends the time-frame for four-day workweeks, were made to Berne highway workers’ collective bargaining agreement without ratification by the town board.

The agreements were made between the union representatives and Republican Supervisor Sean Lyons. The three Democrats on the board were unaware of the months-old changes until May, after Councilwoman Karen Schimmer learned highway employees were already working four days instead of five during a time of year not allowed in the original contract.

The amendments, which were made in February and last August, now must be ratified by the town board in order to be enacted. The last contract was approved in 2017.

Lyons told The Enterprise on Saturday that the union has warned a grievance will be filed if the amendments do not remain. Schimmer said on Wednesday that the union has now filed a grievance with the town.

“It’s moved beyond our simple approval or lack thereof,” she said of the amendments.

The four-day workweek had caused a conflict three years ago between Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger, who is also Berne’s Republican chairman, and the former supervisor, Democrat Kevin Crosier, who opposed the schedule. This escalated when Crosier fired two highway workers before quickly reinstating them. In the next election, Lyons beat Crosier in the supervisor’s race.

The town board has yet to vote on the amendments — an agenda item to do so was tabled at the last town board meeting — but has held at least two closed-door sessions discussing the matter, including a three-hour session that caused the regular board meeting to be split into two separate meetings.

Lyons told The Enterprise that, at the time the contract changes were made, he did not believe a board vote was needed to amend the contract. He described it as a “procedural error” that has now been corrected, and said that he hadn’t informed the board because he considered the amendments “day to day” activities.

In a letter to the Enterprise editor, published this week, Councilman Joel Willsey described the amendments as secret backroom agreements used as a means by Republicans to win the votes of the highway department workers.

“It appears to me that the GOP chairman is the one supervising the town,” Willsey wrote, referring to Bashwinger.

As the department head, Bashwinger would have been aware of the amendments, Lyons told The Enterprise.

Schimmer told The Enterprise on Wednesday that a town resident told her in May that the highway workers appeared to be already working on a compressed schedule. She said she emailed Lyons about the matter and included the rest of the town board in the message but did not receive a reply from the supervisor and believes that there was no discussion of it until the closed-door session that occurred on June 12.

She said that Lyons told the town board that the amendments were a campaign promise he made and that he didn’t want the town board to put up “roadblocks.”

“This has never happened before,” Schimmer said. “I worked for three other supervisors and this has never happened before.”

Once the amendments were discovered by the Democratic board members, the matter was brought before town attorney William Conboy, who advised that the amendments would need to be ratified by the town board, Lyons told The Enterprise.

Conboy did not return calls before press time.

Lyons said that he and the union leaders did not see the amendments as affecting the town budget or changing the law, and so he did not see it as necessary for the board to ratify the amendments. However, after speaking with the town attorney, Lyons now agrees that the changes require legislative action.

Lyons said that he had spoken to Conboy before he negotiated with the union in February and last August, and was advised that negotiations would include the union leaders, the supervisor, and the deputy supervisor.

When The Enterprise asked why the attorney did not advise Lyons on the need for the board to ratify then, Lyons — who is in his first term as supervisor, never before holding an elected office — said perhaps he hadn’t asked the proper questions of Conboy, as he asked only who signs the contract.

Lyons said that the union leaders had approached him about making the changes, with negotiations on each amendment lasting about a month. He said that the first amendment, which was signed in August 2018, was to expand the compressed workweek — four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days — to what Lyons said is considered by the highway department fiscally to be summer, from April 1 to Sept. 30.

The 2017 contract specified that the compressed workweek would run from the third Sunday in June until Labor Day. Lyons said extending this time period would allow the highway department to work with other towns that may also be operating under such a schedule; he added that it boosts production and improves morale.

Schimmer said that the original start and end dates for the compressed workweek were necessary in order to have highway workers available when school buses are on the road. She added that there are also financial implications due to potentially more overtime being given during a compressed workweek.

In his letter to the Enterprise editor, Willsey expressed concern that, due to the amendment not having a specific start- or end-date for the compressed workweek, that the highway employees could be allowed to operate under such a schedule any time of the year.

In an email to The Enterprise, Lyons said that the amendment was never intended to be open-ended. He said that although it was titled “summer compressed work schedule,” it did not include any dates, but he said he has asked to include the dates of April 1 to Sept. 30 in the new amendment.


Deputy superintendent

The same amendment also allows the deputy highway superintendent to be considered part of the union and able to participate in the collective bargaining agreement.

Edward Hampton was appointed the deputy superintendent in January after years of the department not having one.

In March, Bashwinger started working a second, part-time  job while still being paid $53,270 a year for his full-time job as highway superintendent. He accepted a political job working weekday mornings for the Albany County Board of Elections.

Hampton is paid $2,400 in addition to his rate of pay as a foreman, which is $23.10 per hour. Under the 2017 contract, the deputy superintendent is considered management and therefore, like Bashwinger, is not part of the union.

The second amendment, which was signed this past February, allows workers to divide their leave time into 30-minute increments rather than four-hour increments, said Lyons. This was put in place to allow a worker to leave for a shorter amount of time if necessary, Lyons said, giving an example: Rather than take a half-day to go to a 30-minute doctor’s appointment, a worker may leave for just an hour.

Lyons said he does not believe the town board will object to any of the items other than extending the compressed workweek. For that reason, each item was split into a separate amendment to be approved.


Needs assessment

Split on party lines, the town board voted, 3 to 2, on June 17 to have Lyons sign a contract with Michael Richardson, a labor consultant used by the town in the past, to conduct a needs assessment with the highway department.

At the meeting, Lyons objected to hiring Richardson, a suggestion made by Schimmer, because Lyons wanted to find out whether the town’s insurance companies offered free or cheaper services. Schimmer said she was concerned that waiting a month would push the assessment too close to budget season when it would be needed.

Bashwinger later argued that the highway superintendent’s advice — his own — should be taken instead. Willsey said in an email to The Enterprise that such information from the highway department had been requested but was not received for months.

“He helped lay off two of our guys in the past,” Palow said at the meeting of Richardson, referring to the firing of the two highway workers.

“He had no part … one individual did that,” replied Schimmer. Crosstalk ensued.

“So I guess Crosier is ‘sleazy,’ just like you addressed Sean in emails,” said Palow.

Willsey has written in his letter to the editor that this refers to emails regarding the amendments.

Crosier told The Enterprise on Wednesday that Richardson had nothing to do with the process of laying off the two town workers, but acted only as an advisor; he declined to say what Richardson had advised at the time.

Crosier also said that Richardson had worked for the town for at least 25 years.

“He’s a consummate professional,” Crosier said. “He’s worked for over 30 municipalities.”

Lyons told The Enterprise on Saturday that the idea for a needs assessment came up when Deputy Superintendent Hampton said the highway department needed more manpower and equipment, including another full-time worker and another part-time worker.

Lyons said he and Palow were in favor of these suggestions but the majority of the board, the Democrats, said a needs assessment was required before funding any more manpower.

Lyons told The Enterprise he is now in favor of conducting this survey with the hope that the highway department’s views will be taken into account. He said he had hoped it could have been conducted at little or no cost, however.

Lyons said he is not sure if there was any merit to Palow’s statement about Richardson and believes only one person fired the workers.

“It’s not a statement I would have made,” he said.

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