The president of Niagara County's blue-collar union claimed Tuesday that the county owes 99 of his former members as much as $5 million in back pay because the layoffs imposed when the county closed its nursing home two years ago violated the union contract.
But County Manager Gregory D. Lewis issued a statement saying the county owes the former employees nothing.
Union chief Edward McDonald backed off his $5 million claim later Tuesday, reducing the purported amount to $2.5 million. But he insisted that Lewis is wrong in his claim that the county will get off scot-free.
The controversy centers on an arbitrator's 11-page ruling on a grievance filed by McDonald, president of Local 182, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, after the shutdown of Mount View Health Facility at the end of 2007.
About 150 members of McDonald's union worked at Mount View. Although some used seniority and "bumping rights" to move into other county jobs, 66 full-time and 33 part-time members were knocked off the county payroll.
The union's contract has a unique clause barring the county from laying off any full-time member unless all seasonal, temporary, provisional and part-time workers represented by the union in any county department are laid off first.
Arbitrator Samuel Cugalj of Orchard Park, chosen from a list offered by the state Public Employment Relations Board, wrote that the section is "clear as a bell . . . seasonal, temporary and part-time employees are not to be working if full-time employees are laid off."
Lewis said there's more to it than that. The contract also says that laid-off full-time workers must be given a chance to supplant part-time, temporary or seasonal workers in line with their seniority and their qualifications for the other jobs.
"The county did offer the available work to the full-time employees, and, therefore, we do not believe there is any monetary exposure to the county," Lewis' statement said.
Lewis' statement didn't mention that Cugalj wrote that, unless full-time employees declined the county's job offer in writing, the county would be liable for back pay.
"He's got a couple [declinations] in writing, but he doesn't have 99," McDonald said.
Cugalj ordered the sides to meet within 15 days to identify workers who didn't turn down new county jobs in writing. Those workers will be eligible for back pay, but not at the salary level of their Mount View jobs.
Rather, Cugalj wrote, the compensation must be based on the pay rate they would have received in their new county jobs. In other words, full-timers could receive only part-time back pay.
McDonald admitted that in his haste to inform the media of the decision, he didn't read that part. He, therefore, cut his $5 million estimate in half.
McDonald said the full-timers at Mount View earned an average of $31,000 a year; the part-timers -- certified nurses' aides, laundry workers, cleaners and other maintenance staff -- were being paid an average of $19,000.