LOCKPORT – Scores of Civil Service Employees Association members jammed the Niagara County Courthouse Tuesday night, protesting the county’s abolition of a flexible work schedule in the Social Services Department.
The County Legislature approved the hiring of a new deputy sheriff to work full time on security at the Niagara Falls welfare office, where workers who addressed the Legislature claimed the new work schedule would make things worse.
Starting Sept. 8, everyone in the department is supposed to work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., ending a more than decade-old policy that allowed Social Services employees to set their own hours.
Supervised visitation of foster children will have to occur between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., meaning Social Services workers won’t be able to accommodate the work schedules of the parents, said Shawna Taylor, a supervisor in the department. “We are threatened on a daily basis,” Taylor told the Legislature. “We’re going to triple the amount of comp time you’re paying for. Have you budgeted for that?”
Human Resources Director Peter P. Lopes said some workers were coming in late and leaving early, and the variability in the schedule had become “unmanageable.” Lopes told lawmakers that Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino decided it would be better for clients to have everyone work fixed hours.
Lopes said, “We felt it more appropriate to have a more regimented starting and ending work day. We don’t see why it should cost more money.” He added later, “Yes, there will be overtime, but it’ll be more manageable, so there will be more transparency and more accountability.”
Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, asked for the change to be delayed until a Legislature committee has a chance to discuss it. Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport, concurred with that request. County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz said it could be considered, but Restaino wasn’t present to comment.
Sue Young, president of the county’s CSEA unit, denied Lopes’ statement that the union had been consulted and approved of the change. She said she had no advance notice of Restaino’s July 29 memo announcing the schedule change, and the union swallowed it because the original alternative work schedule arrangement allowed either side to back out with two weeks’ notice.
“What we agreed to was, we couldn’t grieve it because of the backout clause,” Young said.
On another contentious topic, Glatz told the Legislature the county has spent up to $100,000 in investigation and compliance with state orders regarding the late-May asbestos exposure incident at the Shaw Building, where two pieces of asbestos were removed from the basement by welfare workers wearing no protective equipment.
State inspectors found eight “serious” violations by the county. Virtuoso said he was contacted by the client who allegedly carried the asbestos out, complaining that he was questioned in what he was told was a meeting to review his benefits. Glatz said the welfare recipient denied carrying the asbestos out of the building.
“He was not cooperative. He was lying repeatedly,” said Jennifer R. Pitarresi, director of risk and insurance services. Virtuoso called the county official’s conduct “unprofessional” and said the welfare recipient has a lawyer. Pitarresi said she wouldn’t have questioned the man if she had known he had retained an attorney.
Glatz said the county’s internal investigation will be done by the end of this month.
Legislator Jason A. Zona, D-Niagara Falls, condemned Glatz’s notion of disciplining employees, saying that the county should be concentrating on training workers to recognize asbestos, as the state ordered.
Chairman William L. Ross cut off Public Information Officer Christian W. Peck when he tried to respond to criticism of what Virtuoso called “misleading” news releases about the asbestos incident. Peck gave Virtuoso a Latin phrase meaning “Don’t shoot the messenger” and told Virtuoso that it came “from your people, the Romans.”
“Get this guy out of here,” Virtuoso barked.