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Union files grievance with city

Jobs of up to 20 former employees are in question
By: Stephanie Dumm, News Messenger Reporter
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Questions over Lincoln’s reserves have led the city’s professional/administrative and classified labor groups’ representative to file a grievance. James Britton, business representative for Stationary Engineers, Local 39, filed a level one grievance against the city on Dec. 23. In a Dec. 23 letter Britton wrote to City Manager Jim Estep, Britton states that the grievance “is on behalf of all affected bargaining unit members in the professional/administrative and the classified units...” The city violated the employees’ contracts when employees “were laid off for a lack of funds,” according to Britton’s letter. But city officials say the union is misinterpreting Lincoln’s current available funds Britton said between 15 and 20 former employees would be reinstated if the city cooperates with the grievance. They are a combination of classified and professional/administrative employees. The employees in question were laid off, from 2008 through this year, according to Britton. A grievance is filed when an employer violates an employee’s, or in this case several employees’, contracts, according to Britton. “If there’s a violation of the memorandum of understanding by the employer, then we have the ability to file a grievance and ask them to correct it,” Britton said. Currently, the grievance is between the city and the union, Britton said. The first step in the grievance process is filing it, according to Britton, and the second step is Estep answering how the city chooses to respond to the grievance. “The outcome that we are requesting is that they reinstate the folks who were laid off and make whole their wages,” Britton said. “The city could deny the grievance.” If the city denies the grievance, the next step would be arbitration and a binding decision, according to Britton. Britton said he decided to file the grievance two weeks ago, upon learning about the $57 million in investments the city has. “The city has funds in reserve dollars of approximately $57 million that could have been used to provide services to the citizens of the city of Lincoln, as well as to keep bargaining unit members from being laid off,” Britton wrote. In the Dec. 23 letter to Estep, Stationary Engineers, Local 39 requested that the city “cease and desist the wrongful layoffs and return all laid off bargaining unit members to their prior position and make whole any lost wages and benefits as a result of the layoffs.” The cost to the city for cooperating with the grievance would be due to lost wages and benefits paid to the laid off employees, according to Britton. However, if the employees have since found work, Britton said, the former employees would only receive the difference between their current wages and what the city had paid them. Britton was not able to give a range of salaries for those employees. According to a salary schedule for professional/administrative employees on the city’s website, salaries for professional/administrative employees can range from $32,000 to $104,000. A salary schedule for classified employees on the city’s website shows that classified employees can make as little as $25,000 or as much as $293,000. Estep has five business days to respond to the grievance, which gives him until Jan. 6 to respond since the city is closed for business this week, according to Britton. Estep would not comment in detail about the city’s response to the grievance when asked Dec. 23 by The News Messenger. “What I will say is we don’t have $57 million in reserves. Those are investments,” Estep said. “We will be addressing that with the union for the grievance procedure that we have in the MOU (memo of understanding).” “We will address this with the union. They are misinterpreting those as reserves and we need to explain that to the union,” Estep said. The investments are not reserves, according to Estep, and “can’t be used for those positions.” The union sees it differently. “Based on the now alleged $57 million in the investment reserves, there wasn’t a lack of funds so we are filing a grievance,” Britton said on Dec. 23. Britton said “there’s a difference between those with common sense and those in management” about the reserves. “It is an investment that they could liquidate in order to provide services or keep from laying folks off,” Britton said. “They (the city) say that there’s a policy by the City Council that generates the decision as to whether they wait until it matures or not but the City Council is making that policy and they have the ability to liquidate that asset.” The News Messenger asked Estep if this was accurate. “Those investments are made for specific funds and are restricted to use for those funds,” Estep said. When asked by The News Messenger if the city would hire back employees laid off starting in 2008 due to lack of funding, Estep said he was “not going to address that right now.” “We have to follow grievance procedures and I don’t want to violate that,” Estep said. Jan Gentry worked in the city’s solid waste division as a maintenance worker for three years until he was laid off on July 8 since the classified group opted out of concessions to balance this year’s budget. Gentry said it would be “great” if he got his job back. “I’m working a temporary job. A permanent job would be great,” Gentry said. “I’d go back. It’s the economy. You’ve got to take it when you can get them.” Gentry said it was “smart” of Britton to file the grievance. “If they (the city) have the money, he’s doing his job and trying to take care of his union people,” Gentry said. To Danny Bisiar, “it would be nice” if he got his job back. Former assistant wastewater technician Danny Bisiar was laid off from the wastewater division, also on July 8, but had been on workers’ compensation since Jan. 29. He worked for the city for six years. “I guess I would (return to work for the city) but I still don’t know if I’d be able to trust them,” Bisiar said, citing the $3 million in misallocated investment losses to the General Fund recently brought up by City Councilman Stan Nader. “I would have my reservations because of how the city has treated their employees.”