Two and a half years after the EG School Committee’s attempt to outsource custodians, both sides said negotiations to extend the contract an additional two years this fall were smooth and amicable, with union members getting a 2 percent raise for the remainder of this fiscal year, and for each of the next two years.
Under this new contract, the “sick bank” was abolished; instead union members will now buy temporary disability insurance (TDI). The money will be deducted from their paychecks.
“It was very genial,” said School Committee Chair David Green of the negotiations.
“The process was fine, everyone was great,” said union representative Joe Machon, an electrician with the district. It was a lot different than the last contract negotiations, he said.
That time, in 2010, after going two years without a contract, custodians and maintenance workers nearly lost their jobs.
The School Committee voted to outsource custodians and maintenance workers (including Machon) in June 2010, citing cost savings. The union threatened to sue and the two sides returned to the negotiating table, reaching an agreement in July 2010 that cut pay by 7.5 percent and increased health insurance co-pays to 20 percent. In addition, new hires would not receive step increases.
Then-union rep. Bob DiIorio said at the time: “We get to keep our jobs for three years. Beyond that, we didn't get anything."
The current contract was re-opened at the request of the union. There was a provision in the contract giving the union the right to request a “wage re-opener” in the third year. Administration officials suggested extending the contract an additional two years and the union agreed.
Green, who was one of the two committee members on the negotiating team, along with Jack Sommer, said extending the contract also meant being able to look at the whole contract, as opposed to just discussing wages.
“Extending the contract meant we could take a look at the entire contract and revise what might be outdated,” Green said. It also meant everything was on the table again, including such things as the sick bank.
TDI replaces a system in which workers could donate one unused sick day a year. That day would be deposited into the sick bank and if a worker had a need for additional sick days in a given year, he could apply to the so-called bank for up to five additional sick days.
“I think it was good for its time when there was not any long-term disability,” said Green. “TDI has been around for a while in the state and it’s actually a lucrative deal for those unfortunate people who have to take advantage of it.”
That said, the switch also represents a savings to the district of $2,258 this year.
On the wage increase, Machon said initially the union had asked for the 7.5 percent that was cut two years ago to be reinstated. The administration countered with the 2 percent a year increase that the paraprofessional union got in their most recent contract and that's what stuck.
Employees who were hired after July 2010 do not receive step increases and the new contract does not change that. Their hourly wage is in the $12 range, whereas the top-step custodians get $17-plus an hour. Most of the custodians are on the top step.
According to Green, there is no plan to re-instate step increases.
One area of contention was forced overtime for custodians. School buildings are rented out more frequently than in years past, both sides agree, especially the high school and regularly on weekends. The administration has had a policy where anyone who signs up to work overtime for a particular building could be compelled to cover an overtime shift if no one else signed up. That has rankled union members, according to Machon, and resulted in some of them not signing up to work overtime.
Going forward, those on the list will be asked first, then a sub will be asked. If there’s a problem getting those shifts covered, the contract will be reopened.
“These guys have been doing a phenomenal job getting those shifts covered,” Machon said. “We can revisit the contract if there’s a problem down the road.”
Green said that sort of flexibility was what made negotiations go smoothly, what he called ”a focus on outcome rather than detail.”
He pointed to another part of the contract to illustrate what he meant. Administration wanted the custodians to wear uniforms all year, including the summer months. The reason, Green said, was one of security, so everyone coming into the buildings knew the custodians belonged there.
That bothered union members, Machon said, because it was hot in the summer. They wanted to be able to wear shorts. After some discussion, the two sides were able to come to agreement – union members would wear uniform shirts but could wear shorts on the job.
Green was not in office at the time of the outsourcing episode. Asked whether or not he thought the new contract reflected a win for the school district, he said yes, although not on a strictly financial basis.
“Could I purchase the service for less? Sure. But maybe I’d get less service,” he said. He recalled the extraordinary effort put in by custodians to reopen Meadowbrook on time last September.
“Bob Coutu and I became fast friends,” Green said of the Meadowbrook custodian. “I was seeing him every day. I’m guessing he was pushing 12 hour days for an extended time.”
Custodians from other building also got involved that last week and “the teachers walked in on that Wednesday morning and it was done,” he said. “And that’s because it was a good crew.”
“In this case, we’re getting value for what we’re spending,” Green said.