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Collins' failed part-time idea costs county
Taxpayers will pay $450,000 to cover back pay, benefits to workers for full-time jobs

Erie County taxpayers will surrender $450,000 to settle County Executive Chris Collins' failed experiment to hire part-time workers for full-time jobs.

Soon after taking office in 2008, Collins figured he could save money with an employment category called "regular part-time."

Regular part-time employees had usually worked about 20 hours a week and received half the paid leave that unionized full-time employees got. Collins figured he would place so-called "RPTs" in jobs that had historically been considered full-time.

He would work the part-timers up to 39 hours a week while still giving them half the paid time off, as well as the customary half-day's pay for the holidays and other days off they took.

Local 815, Civil Service Employees Association, challenged him and won before the state Public Employment Relations Board, then in State Supreme Court and the State Appellate Division. A panel of five appeals judges in February unanimously ordered Collins to make the employees whole -- as though they had been 40-hour employees from their starting date.

Under an agreement reached recently between the Collins team and the CSEA, the employees will be granted more vacation and sick leave to treat them as though they had always been full-time. But for the time off they took at their reduced status -- for holidays, personal days and shortened work days during the summer -- the employees will be compensated with wages paid at their 2011 rate.

The part-timers had also received a half-hour paid lunch when they should have received an hour, and for that they will receive 15 minutes of back pay for each half-hour lunch, according to the agreement signed by CSEA officers and Christopher M. Putrino, the Collins-appointed commissioner of labor relations.

A Collins spokesman, Grant Loomis, said there are some savings when figuring that the regular part-timers will not be compensated for 15 minutes of what should have been hourlong lunch breaks.

Joan Bender, president of the CSEA local, said an hour's paid lunch is not uniform for CSEA workers throughout county government so the negotiators settled at a middle ground of 15 minutes' back pay.

"The lesson to be learned here is if the management or the county executive or whoever would just talk to us first, we might be willing to work something out," Bender said of the RPT saga. "But Mr. Collins never seems to want to talk to the union."

She said the RPT experiment stressed the employees and created additional expense for county government, as Collins hired an outside law firm to represent him. The cost for the firm, Goldberg Segalla LLP of Buffalo, was not available Monday.

Collins officials say they hired about 300 regular part-time workers who are being designated as "special regular part-time employees" as long as they hold those jobs. They will be regularly scheduled to work 40 hours a week and will receive the benefits of full-time CSEA employees, the agreement says.

The Collins team said the back pay will cost county taxpayers about $450,000. That doesn't include the back pay that will come from the state and federal governments because some of the workers are in jobs supported by state and federal agencies.

Both the Public Employment Relations Board and the courts had said Collins tried to unilaterally impose a policy that he should have negotiated with the union.

After his initial loss before PERB, Collins had offered what he considered a middle ground: He would stop hiring regular part-timers for full-time jobs if the CSEA members approved a contract agreement he proposed. But his contract offer did not compensate those part-timers as though they had always been full-time. CSEA members in August defeated the offer by an almost a 2-1 ratio.

Under the new agreement, regular part-time employees will be considered those who work between 20 and 40 hours a week, but any time they work more than 60 hours in a two-week pay period they will be treated as a full-timer when it comes to the accrual of vacation and sick leave for that pay period.

The agreement also says "no employees will henceforth be hired as regular part-time employees to work 39 hours per week in replacement of full-time employees."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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