The police officers at Erie County Medical Center will keep their pay raise.
But that didn’t stop union leaders and county lawmakers from making political charges Thursday over labor relations.
The hospital and county in December agreed to raise the annual pay for the 43 officers to $43,000 – an $8,000 increase – under a six-month agreement put in place while the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees negotiated a labor pact for all of its roughly 1,5000 members in the county work force.
The officers kept the higher pay rate even after six months. But Richard Canazzi, president of AFSCME Local 1095, said he heard last week that the county was threatening to revoke the raises. With the original police pay agreement expired and contract negotiations for the other county workers going nowhere, Erie County lawmakers and union leaders scheduled a press conference Thursday over their fears the officers would lose their higher salaries.
But before their press conference, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and ECMC CEO Thomas Quatroche agreed over the phone that the hospital would sign a separate side agreement with AFSCME to ensure the raises continue.
The lawmakers and union officials went ahead with the press conference anyway, scolding the county executive for letting labor issues degenerate. It was an odd instance of the Republican-supported majority in the Legislature taking an opportunity to criticize the union-friendly Democratic county executive for using the police as a bargaining chip in labor negotiations.
“The issue here is to pay officers what they’re worth,” said Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca.
Republican Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw added, “This is not a political issue. This is a public safety issue.”
Poloncarz, in turn, said he had “nothing to do” with the ECMC police pay issue and that as of Thursday morning it would be resolved in a side agreement between the hospital and police directly. Police officers will not lose their higher salaries, he said.
“Whatever happened today was an attempt to politicize something that should never have been politicized,” Poloncarz said.
Poloncarz said that ECMC handles labor negotiations and personnel issues with its own staff separately. He also said that even though county officials signed off on the six-month wage agreement, it probably shouldn’t have since the county would not cover the police officers’ raises – the hospital would.
Poloncarz said ECMC employees should be split into a separate bargaining unit, instead of being under the general AFSCME umbrella, in order to ensure fair contracts since the hospital and its employees are independently managed.
The ECMC police officers serve at the hospital and satellite clinics and have similar authority as Buffalo police officers, union officials said.
The hospital’s officers make about 100 arrests a year and handle major security issues, said Officer Steve Jeffery, who serves as the AFSCME unit chairman at the hospital.
The officers deal with situations that “could get out of control very quickly,” Jeffery said.
The previous $35,000 annual salaries resulted in high turnover and retraining costs for the hospital, Canazzi said.
The hospital in December agreed to the higher pay in exchange for some work-rule concessions by the union.