Written by Rich Forestano Wednesday, 07 May 2014 00:00
The Village of Mineola has been ordered by the New York State Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to repay medical insurance costs deducted from retired employees after August 2011, according to documents reviewed by the Mineola American. The village must continue to pay the full cost of retirees health benefits until it can negotiate a different contract with the union.
The ruling from Administrative Law Judge Angela Blassman marks the second adjudicated dispute between the village and its employees union over health benefit contributions. Workers lost the first argument. Dissatisfaction over that loss contributed to a break with the Teamsters Union, which
had represented village employees for more than 20 years, in favor of the United Public Service Employees Union (UPSEU).
The contention arose around several contracts negotiated by both unions and the village’s inconsistent implementation thereof, making for a confusing timeline. In sum: A major change in a Teamsters-negotiated contract stipulated employees hired after 1988 would contribute a portion of their
health insurance costs through payroll deductions. The village, however, neglected to take those deductions for 17 years—until 2005, when then mayor Jack Martins (now a state senator) noticed the village was still paying the full cost. That sudden change angered workers, who filed a grievance through their union—at the time still the Teamsters. An arbitration award in June 2006 found in favor of the village. That’s when the workers changed unions.
The subject of healthcare benefits in retirement, however, didn’t come up until 2011. It wasn’t until August 2011 that an employee hired after 1988, in this case Peter Saia, reached retirement, according to the documents. The village began taking from his retirement pay the same health insurance deductions being paid by active employees. Current employees took the issue to UPSEU, which on Jan. 5, 2012 filed a complaint with the state PERB against Mineola.
On April 11, Administrative Law Judge Angela Blassman ruled for the union. Mineola must now repay Saia and any other retirees for healthcare premiums paid, and continue to pay 100 percent of retirees’ healthcare premiums until it can negotiate a different contract.
In part, Blassman ruled, Mineola violated its agreement when it “unilaterally changed the past practice of paying one hundred percent of the cost of health insurance premiums.” The village had established a precedent by not collecting deductions for nearly 17 years.
One factor made the key difference in the ruling coming down for the workers: Prior to 2007, village contracts made no specifications with respect to retired employees, the documents said.
Testimony showed some confusion among village officials, with Blassman’s ruling noting that the testimony of village attorney John Spellman “was unclear and was contradicted by [former mayor] John Colbert’s testimony.”
Spellman, on the principle that “a retiree should not do better in retirement than he did in active service,” felt that whatever was negotiated for employees would apply upon retirement as well. “Our position was that whatever your benefits were on the day you retired that is the benefits you keep in retirement,” Spellman testified.
Colbert, mayor at the time of the contracts, voluntarily testified that it was “never [his] understanding that employees who retired would be required to pay for a portion of their health insurance in retirement.” He also admitted that he “did not fully review” the agreement.
Emails reviewed by Blassman show the attorney and the UPSEU representative James Gangale discussing insertion of the word “active” into the contract, with Gangale specifying that retiree benefits were excluded from the negotiation—in order to get a ratified contract.
“I wanted to make sure that we weren’t changing the practice there for the retirees and that this was only for active members,” Gangale said.