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Wallingford prevails in arbitration over snowstorm vacation day

WALLINGFORD — An arbitration panel recently sided with the town in the case of one municipal union that filed a grievance opposing the mayor’s decision to withhold pay after asking town employees not to show up for work during a major snowstorm in February 2013.

“The town prevailed,” said Shelby Jackson, president of United Public Service Employees Union Local 424-17, which represents municipal managers.

After Town Hall was closed due to about three feet of snow, Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. filed a memo Feb. 14 stating that town employees who didn’t report to work on Feb. 11 must take a vacation day in order to be paid. Non-essential town employees had been told by Dickinson not to report to work that day, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy closed the state.

Six of the town’s seven employee unions filed a grievance. Personnel Director Terrence Sullivan said in March that he expected several unions to request arbitration because in-house dispute resolution was not successful. Local 424-17 did seek arbitration, Jackson said. After a formal hearing process, a panel from the Connecticut State Board of Mediation and Arbitration recently ruled in the town’s favor.

As a result, the 55 members of Local 424-17 will be charged a vacation day, said Jackson, who is also the town’s assessor.

“Now we move on with life,” Jackson said of the decision. “I understand that the mayor is in a difficult position where no matter what he decides, someone is going to disagree.”

Jackson said he didn’t know why the arbitrators ruled against union. A staff member with the mediation and arbitration board said an official ruling was not available at this time. The staff member directed any inquires regarding the board’s decision to town staff. Dickinson and Assistant Personnel Director James Hutt were unavailable for comment on Friday.

Besides a $25 filing fee, arbitration through the state board comes at no cost to municipalities and employment unions, said Nancy Steffens, communications director for the state Department of Labor.

At least one other union – American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1183 Council 4 – is still pursuing their grievance. The union represents public works, clerical and sewer workers.

“We just don’t think that it’s fair,” Ed Thibodeau, a staff representative from AFSCME Council 4, said of Dickinson’s decision.

A hearing has yet to be scheduled by the mediation and arbitration board, Thibodeau said. The process often takes over a year, he added.

It’s unclear if other unions are still pursuing their grievances. Besides Dickinson’s directive, town employees were also angry that employees of the school system were paid for the three days they were told not to show up to work due to the same storm. School Superintendent Sal Menzo said in February 2013 that the difference in policy was due to separate labor contracts.

With several unions potentially filing the same claim against the town, the fact that the town prevailed against Local 424-17 could set a precedent, said Town Council John Sullivan, a Democrat.

“I think right now the advantage is to the mayor and the town,” Sullivan said.

In the future, it might benefit unions to seek language for a storm policy in contract negotiations, he said. There’s apparently no policy in place now, Sullivan said, so when municipal government shuts down the issue is up in the air.

Opinions vary amongst councilors whether it’s prudent for the town to pursue arbitration due to time and legal costs. Sullivan said each case is unique.

“I don’t think you can strengthen the argument that we should always go to arbitration based on one case that was favorable to the town,” Sullivan said.

Republican Town Councilor Craig Fishbein said arbitration got the town “the right result.”

“It dovetails into my continued argument that certain councilors are apprehensive and afraid to fight certain actions,” he said. All too often, Fishbein added, his colleagues on the council feel the town has no chance of winning in arbitration.

Dickinson’s decision last February was puzzling, Republican Town Councilor John LeTourneau said. It was Dickinson’s choice to close Town Hall, not employees, so it’s strange to charge them a vacation day, he said. The decision from arbitrators to side with the town “is surprising,” LeTourneau said.

“It’s going to be interesting to see if all the other decisions come back the same way,” he said. (203) 317-2224 Twitter: @Andyragz

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