Question Two Town Layoffs

Stephen Lester
Stephen Lester, a Highway Department employee, is set to lose his job because of the elimination of the two positions. Morgan McGivern

    The elimination of two positions in the East Hampton Town Sanitation Department, leaving two town employees without jobs, prompted comments at a town board meeting last Thursday from Elaine Jones, an Amagansett resident whose late husband worked for the town, and whose son-in-law still does.
    She said that Supervisor Bill Wilkinson had said, during the 2009 election season, that layoffs would not occur.
    “I think what I said last year was that we take every possibility to do it on a voluntary basis,” Mr. Wilkinson replied. “I said at the beginning of the year that we had to get smaller, and get smarter.”
    Although a number of town employees retired last fall under a state-sponsored incentive program, Mr. Wilkinson noted, as he has often, that the State Legislature failed to approve a bill that would have allowed East Hampton to borrow money to offer its own “employee separation” incentive program. The board did not pursue other options for funding that program.
    At the start of 2011, Mr. Wilkinson said, the town board knew “that the dump was going to close one day [a week], and that layoffs would occur.”
    “You guys are going to vote on if I have a job tomorrow or not,” Stephen Lester, a Highway Department employee set to lose his job because of the elimination of the two positions, told the board.
    Although the cutback was made in the Sanitation Department, Civil Service law provides for a system whereby senior employees whose positions are abolished can “retreat” to another job title, “bumping” a less senior employee out of their post. The Sanitation Department worker who held the heavy equipment operator post that was eliminated claimed Mr. Lester’s Highway Department job.
    “The East Hampton Town Highway Department has a surplus — why do you have to get rid of me?” Mr. Lester asked.
    “There’s nothing personal in a decision to cut back a budget,” Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said.
    Both the Sanitation Department and the Highway Department budgets are separate from the general town operating budget — the one with the multimillion-dollar deficit that is prompting the budget cuts — and both are in the black.
    The other job eliminated, that of a “senior scale house operator,” was held by Kathleen North. Heath Liebman, the head of the town’s Civil Service Employees Association, said Monday that she is a “very hard-working” single mother of three, and that it was “very disheartening” to see her and Mr. Lester lose their jobs.
    The resolution voted on last Thursday called for eliminating the two jobs as of the next day. The two employees were to have been told about the decision a day before the meeting, on April 20.
    Councilwoman Julia Prince said she agreed with an assertion by Ms. Jones that the workers deserved more advance notice — “at least two weeks,” she said.
    “It’s whatever the contract called for,” Mr. Wilkinson said. The board passed the resolution eliminating the jobs “effective immediately.”
    However, the board also voted to extend Mr. Lester and Ms. North’s eligibility for medical insurance benefits for three months.
    “I can say we’re a little stunned,” said Mr. Liebman earlier this week. After 33 employees opted in to the retirement incentive and open positions were eliminated from the 2011 budget, resulting in a net reduction of 51 town positions, he said that the members of his association had not expected additional cuts. “Now we’re frankly a little surprised,” he said.
    “We worked very hard. We believed we provided the support required of us to at least take a look at the retirement package, under the guise that it would prevent layoffs,” Mr. Liebman said.
    The East Hampton Town C.S.E.A. had about 260 members three years ago, Mr. Liebman said. Now the membership is approximately 205. “That’s a pretty large decrease in the overall work force.”
    Mr. Liebman said he did not know if employees eligible for retirement were being encouraged or pressured to leave the town’s employ, but, he said, “that would be ageism,” and that employees who felt that sort of discrimination was occurring would be advised to file a complaint with the town’s Department of Human Resources.
    Several cases prompted by employee complaints of alleged union contract violations or “improper practices” related to alleged violations of Civil Service rules are pending before the New York State Public Employment Relations Board, Mr. Liebman confirmed.
    Labor rules call for employees whose performance has been judged sub-par to be “counseled” — informed of what is wrong, and how to correct it. “I’ve heard of members being questioned,” Mr. Liebman said. “Questioning is not counseling; I don’t know if members are being told what’s wrong.”
    The C.S.E.A.’s contract with the town expired in January, and negotiations are ongoing over a new contract. “I still believe there’s a win-win,” Mr. Liebman said. “I’m still going to stay optimistic as possible for a very healthy management-employee working relationship.”
    With the upcoming election for two town board seats and the supervisor’s position, however, the union is “going to take a very close, hard look at the respective candidates,” Mr. Liebman said. The association “will use whatever resources” to support candidates who support the town employees, he said, “because as residents, they are definitely feeling that they are not being represented.”
    “We will be very invested,” he said.