City of Portland unions will vote on furloughs in which workers could actually come out ahead


By Don McIntosh

With bureau budgets threatened by sudden recession, the City of Portland asked City unions to agree to pay freezes and worker furloughs — measures the City already announced for its non-union employees.

AFSCME Local 189 President Rob Martineau said such concessions would have been a “non-starter” for the six-union 1,220-worker coalition known as the District Council of Trade Unions (DCTU), but a federally funded program called Work Share made possible a compromise that will benefit both City budgets and City workers.

DCTU and the City reached tentative agreement May 28 that would extend the existing union contract six months, to Dec. 31. If ratified, the agreement would result in a temporary income bump courtesy of the federal government, followed by some shorter work weeks and a slight cut in earnings the second half of the year. The plan makes use of Work Share, a program that allows workers to collect partial unemployment benefits to compensate for “partial” unemployment such as a one-day-a-week furlough. From now until late July, City workers will work fewer hours and still come out ahead economically because they’ll receive a proportionate share of the weekly unemployment benefit plus the temporary $600 a week “enhanced” unemployment benefit that Congress approved in March.

“I never thought I’d negotiate a concession in which my folks would end up with four to five thousand dollars more,” Martineau told the Labor Press by phone.

Under the agreement, the City would furlough employees for up to 64 hours, and the goal is to do that before the enhanced benefits run out July 25.

After that, City workers would have the option to take voluntary schedule reductions—reducing hours to between 50% and 90% of full-time hours while maintaining full-time benefits and collecting partial unemployment benefits for the missed hours. The reductions would continue until May 31, 2021, except that workers can choose to resume normal hours as of Dec. 23 or at any time by mutual agreement with managers.

“The City’s intent is to reduce salary costs without harming folks,” Martineau told union members in a May 28 Zoom teleconference call explaining the tentative agreement.

The payroll savings are explicitly to prevent layoffs, and can’t be used for other purposes. Union members would benefit from the initial income boost, Martineau said, and they may also appreciate the extra time off.

DCTU also agreed to delay until Jan. 1, 2021 an annual cost-of-living increase of 2.9% that would normally take place July 1. On the other hand, DCTU unions held firm and rejected a City proposal to freeze step increases—the annual wage increases that employees get until they reach the top step in the pay scale.

About 50 City workers won’t qualify to take part in the Work Share program because they have second jobs, have returned to work after retirement, or have been with the City less than six months. Under the agreement, those who aren’t eligible for Work Share won’t be required to take the furlough days.

The agreement comes after six weeks of bargaining between the City and the DCTU. The DCTU coalition includes AFSCME Local 189, Machinists Lodge 1005, IBEW Local 48, Plumbers and Fitters Local 290, Operating Engineers Local 701, and Painters Local 10. Each union will present the agreement to members for a ratification vote, and the goal is to have the agreement ratified by June 5.

The City reached similar deals covering about 700 members of Laborers Local 483 and 800 members of Protec17.

Local 483’s existing contract wasn’t due to expire until July 1, 2021, but after careful study of the City’s financial situation, union negotiators agreed to 64 hours of furlough and a one-year freeze of pay step increases. Those two measures will save the City $2.4 million and prevent 35 layoffs. Members will still get the 2.9% cost of living increase scheduled for July 1.  The agreement extends the contract through July 2022, except that the two sides will  negotiate later a July 1, 2021 cost-of-living raise. Ratification votes will be counted June 8.

The agreement with Protec17 combines furlough days, voluntary schedule reductions and a deferred 2.9% cost-of-living increase. Protec17 members—engineering and professional employees—would be furloughed just 40 hours, not 64 like the others, but Protec17 also agreed to defer scheduled step increases for six months. The agreement with Protec17 modifies the union’s existing contract with the City, which runs through June 30, 2021. A ratification vote was set for June 3, after this issue went to press.

The City was approved May 28 to enroll in the Work Share program and the reductions can start as early as June 1.


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