×

Capital Beat: State workers press governor on contracts

  • Republican Gov. Chris Sununu acknowledges a standing ovation with his wife, Valerie, during his first State of the State address at the State House on Thursday, GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff


Sunday, February 18, 2018
By ETHAN DeWITT

Monitor staff

Throughout his State of the State speech, Gov. Chris Sununu brandished more than a few numbers to recap his first year: the 1,600 regulations cut by executive order, the 60 new mental health treatment beds appropriated for in the budget, the $100 million presently in the Rainy Day Fund.

A stone’s throw away across the street, a crowd of purple-clad protesters were pointing to a different number: 230. As of Thursday, it had been 230 days since state workers have been employed without a formally updated contract from the state, and to some, the end feels as far away as ever.

The demonstrators Thursday morning didn’t beat around the bush on whom to blame.

“The governor’s number one job is to run the state, but Gov. Sununu hasn’t provided his own workers with a fair contract,” said Rich Gulla, president of the State Employees’ Association, which organized the rally. “The State of the State is not strong if the workers responsible for running it are not treated fairly.”

The issue has endured since the start of the present fiscal year – July 2017 – when the previous year’s negotiated contracts expired. In his first months in office, Sununu set aside money in the budget to cover a 2 percent raise negotiated under his predecessor – but vowed no new increases for the next contract. Employees’ unions are pushing for a 3 percent increase, arguing it is necessary to meet the rising cost of living; the governor stood his ground. The impasse, which came in April ahead of budget negotiations, eventually led to two of five unions pulling out, causing the governor to end all negotiations at once.

It’s by all accounts a long-running, complex, frustrating situation. Over months, it’s driven a wedge between the men and women earning paychecks from the state and the governor representing them. And if Thursday is any indication, it’s a tension that will stick for a while yet to come.

In recent months, the parties have been working toward a solution: After moving through the bargaining and mediation stages, the parties are now in fact-finding mode with a third party, according to Gulla. A non-binding “fact finding report” is expected out by mid-March, Gulla added.

It is unclear exactly what the governor’s present thinking is; on Friday, a spokesman deferred comments to Matt Newland, the Manager of Employee Relations, who was not available. In past remarks, Sununu has pointed to the ongoing negotiation process and argued it would be premature to comment.

But the mere existence of a process has done little to soften the criticism from the employees themselves.

Dan Brennan, a Department of Transportation worker present at the rally, said that the slow march to an agreement is only creating more uncertainty,

He brought up the governor’s thank you letter to state employees in January, which highlighted the state’s food drive for Puerto Rico hurricane victims and talked up legislative accomplishments that could benefit Granite State workers. The letter did not mention the ongoing wage dispute.

“The truth is we don’t need a thank you letter from the governor,” Brennan said. “We need real action. We need a governor who cares enough about us to sign a state contract.”

And Brennan made reference to a particular sticking point: work boots. A long-awarded stipend to Department of Transportation employees for the purchase of annual pairs of steel-capped boots – necessary for the job and priced at around $200 – disappeared when the previous contract ran out, according to the state employees’ association. The governor rebuffed an apeal to sign memorandum reinstating those stipends while negotiations continued, the association says.

A example pair, worn and faded, hung from the podium for emphasis.

Others placed their concerns within bigger-picture problems facing the state, such as workforce retention. James Nall, a nurse at the Glencliff state nursing home, ticked off the litany of challenges facing regularly facing its employees.

The job can mean workers doing more with less; sometimes three nurses must oversee 38 psychiatric in one shift, Nall said. And it can mean employees putting their personal safety at risk around certain patients.

“I don’t reference this to complain,” he said. “Instead, I highlight this issue because of all the reasons an employee might choose to leave Glencliff Home, their wages should not be one of them.”

For Gulla, the additional wages are necessary to cover higher costs of living – from health care to rent. The days that continue without a mutual agreement, the more potential wages each worker loses out on.

“Sadly, lost money is never found,” he said. “State employees who haven’t had a cost of living increase in these past 230 days will never recuperate those wages.”

Brennan put it more simply.

“My hope is that the governor can see us for people rather than a line item to cross off,” he said.

Correction: Gov. Chris Sununu is pushing for no new increases in wages in the contract negotiations with state workers. An earlier version of this story misstated his position.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)