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Public Employees Federation layoff notices hit the north country


My first pass at a story:
Public employees in the north country have started receiving layoff notices this week after members voted down a proposed contract with the state, though it's impossible to tell how many Northern New Yorkers — if any — will be out of a job when all is said and done.
“It's a very difficult thing to gauge at the moment,” said Peter Banks, a regional coordinator for the Public Employees Federation who covers, among others, Jefferson County. “I can't say anything firm at all, because some people are receiving it by email, some people are being called into an office. We really, really do not know.”
As layoff notices fly, questions for the north country remain. Will the Cuomo administration go through with the layoffs or will a last-minute deal be struck? Who will end up without a job? And where?
None of those questions could be answered Thursday. Not exactly, at least. But given the department-by-department breakdown, the north country will see its fair share of layoffs.
The Department of Mental Health is slated to shed 643 jobs, more than any other department. The St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, Ogdensburg, employs more than 500 people, though not all are PEF members. The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision will lay off 446, second-most in the state. The tri-county area is home to five prisons.
Sources at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, as well as legislative sources, said upwards of two dozen employees have received layoff notices there. At least one chaplain — a rabbi who split time among several correctional facilities — was said to have received a layoff notice, a particularly sensitive issue given that the layout notices were sent during the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah, celebrating the new year. Department of Transportation workers at the Dulles State Office Building in Watertown also received layoff notices, but it was not immediately clear how many.
The process is far from over. First, not every layoff notice — 3,496 statewide — has been sent out. Plus, an employee at the Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg, for example, could “bump” employees with less seniority at other facilities in the state. That's a double-edged sword for north country workers. The ones who have received pink slips may still have a job elsewhere. Those that didn't could still be bumped by workers from other parts of the state and lose their jobs.
And a last-minute deal could avert layoffs altogether, though the prospects for that seemed dim Thursday.
The notifications began when the Public Employees Federation rejected a proposed contract on Tuesday with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration that would have cut benefits like health insurance and instituted furloughs but staved off layoffs.
Mr. Cuomo said in February when unveiling his budget that public-employee unions would have to agree to concessions to save money, or the state would find savings via layoffs. The approach worked for the CSEA, the state's largest union, which agreed to a contract with the governor's office in August.
But PEF, which represents 56,000 professional, scientific and technical employees, shot down what has been described as essentially the same contract.
“People are turning around and saying, ‘I'm not going to be bullied,'” said Mr. Banks, the PEF representative.
The union, the state's second-largest, is urging Mr. Cuomo to return to the bargaining table, but his administration seems reluctant to do so.
“PEF has known their options for months,” Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said, according to a Gannett News Service blog. “It was and is their choice and we are moving forward.”
State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie described the CSEA as “a large union that accepted and understood the economic times.”
“I think it's kind of hard to offer more to PEF employees than was offered to CSEA,” said Mrs. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.
Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, said that the contract with PEF could be tweaked to satisfy all parties.
“Perhaps there is a middle ground that wouldn't make the contract with PEF better than the contract with CSEA,” Mrs. Russell said. “Just because you change something for one union doesn't mean it's better or worse than another.”
Ronald P. McDougall, the president of the Central Trades and Labor Council, said he was unsure how many PEF employees in the north country would end up getting laid off.
“Notification is one thing, implementation is something else,” Mr. McDougall said. “There's still a few weeks.”

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