Bill proposes more state employees be covered by collective bargaining on pay

DOVER — Legislation approved by a Democratic-controlled Senate committee on Wednesday would give more state government employees the ability to negotiate wages.

Currently, only employees in certain professions can bargain with state government for higher salaries, the result of a 2007 measure.

That bill grouped workers into 12 different “units,” with each unit encompassing a variety of jobs. Unit two, for instance, consists of “Nonprofessional patient care workers,” a category that encompasses nurses, nursing assistants, technicians and similar jobs, while unit 10 is made up of correctional officers and related positions in the Department of Correction.

While all employees who are part of a union can negotiate working conditions with the state, only select units can bargain for wages.

Unit one (“Labor, maintenance, trade and service workers”), for instance, has about 1,600 workers. However, because only 1,100 or so of those belong to a union, employees in the unit cannot negotiate salaries.

Units two, six, nine, 10 and 11 are the only ones authorized to bargain for higher salaries.

Senate Bill 8, released to the full chamber Wednesday, would decouple professions from the 12 units, effectively workers to negotiate as part of a union instead. The measure is virtually identical to one that made it out of committee in 2017 but went no further.

The bill would not mandate the General Assembly allocate funding for any negotiated raises, although speakers in the committee hearing said lawmakers have never failed to provide money for agreed-upon pay increases.

Advocates claim the measure could help lift some state workers out of poverty and would provide a greater level of fairness. Nurses, for example, currently are on the same pay scale regardless of location, meaning that in practice one person may do more work than another but get paid the same.

Most of the people who spoke in the Senate Labor Committee, including several union representatives, urged legislators to pass the bill. Main sponsor Sen. Jack Walsh, a Stanton Democrat, insisted lawmakers have a “moral obligation to represent and look after our state employees.”

State employees who testified said salary increases are overdue.

“We wouldn’t be here today if the government would have done what it was supposed to do years ago and negotiated these contracts,” said Fred Calhoun, president of the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police.

But officials from the executive branch appeared cold to the bill. They cautioned it would bring new issues for the state.

“Bottom line, we are not prepared to negotiate the compensation, wages and terms and conditions in the existing staffing for an agency that is at zero neutral budget for two years,” Department of Human Resources Secretary Saundra Johnson said. “We would have to have more people.”

Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican, was the only committee member to oppose the bill. He said that while he agreed that some state workers are underpaid, dissolving bargaining units is not the solution.

Mike Begatto, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 81, attempted to sway him, arguing the benefits for state employees outweigh any negatives.

“This would only be adding compensation to those negotiations,” he said. That prompted Sen. Bonini to respond, “That’s a big only.”

In addition to a $500 bonus, most non-collectively bargained state employees received a $1,000 pay raise last year with teachers getting a 2 percent hike.

They did not get a salary increase in 2017 but earned an increase of the greater of $750 or 1.5 percent the year before.

 

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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