Lawmakers move to stop agencies from paying for union work

Year in and year out, Clark County shells out six-figure pay to a small group of employees who step away from their regular work to handle matters for their unions.

The system of paid union leave offers flexibility: County employees can attend legislative sessions, participate in staff grievance hearings and catch up on labor issues at union conferences — all on the taxpayer’s dime.

Clark County staffers were paid $825,376.14 for doing union-related work from 2011 through 2013, a Las Vegas Review-Journal analysis of salary data shows.

It’s all perfectly legal, plainly spelled out in labor contracts just like everything else negotiated between a union and management.

But the practice raises eyebrows among critics, who say that tax dollars shouldn’t fund union-related activities that sometimes run counter to the same government agencies that pay their salaries.

Government pay for union-related work would end in Nevada under a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Randy Kirner, R-Reno. Assembly Bill 182 would prohibit the practice as part of the bill’s wide-ranging shake-up of collective bargaining. Other aspects of the legislation would exclude supervisors from collective bargaining, prevent local governments from deducting union dues from employee paychecks and require final contract offers from both sides to be made public.

Kirner said the taxpaying public should be getting a teacher, police officer or other government employee when they’re covering the person’s salary — not union-related work.

“Government should not be in the business of subsidizing a union,” he said.

The bill has yet to have a committee hearing.

BY THE NUMBERS

A Review-Journal analysis of Clark County pay records shows how much union leave costs the state’s largest government agency: The annual cost ranged from $224,863.89 in 2011 to $346,200 in 2013, for an annual average of $275,125.

Less than 1 percent of the county’s workforce of nearly 12,000 employees received paid union leave, or 115 employees.

Amounts paid vary widely. In 2013, for example, one staffer claimed the smallest amount, $12.93, while Ryan Beaman, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1908, was paid the most at $52,219.44. Union presidents typically are paid the most because they clock more time on union-related activities. County employees who spend part of their workday in grievance meetings representing a county worker typically are at the low end of the list.

The average annual pay for union leave in 2013 was $3,010 per employee who received it.

The bulk of the payouts go to employees affiliated with the firefighters union and the Service Employees International Union Local 1107, which are the county’s largest labor organizations.

Those figures cover just Clark County government. In 2012, the Nevada Policy Research Institute determined the total annual union leave bill associated with 37 municipal labor contracts in Southern Nevada was at least $4.6 million. Those figures include unions that represent workers in cities, the Metropolitan Police Department and the Clark County School District.

“It’s just a complete waste,” said Victor Joecks, executive vice president of the right-leaning think tank. “There’s no reason that taxpayers should be subsidizing organizations like that.”

HOW IT WORKS

The agreement between Clark County and the Service Employees International Union has varied provisions for union leave.

A county worker who becomes president of SEIU’s Local 1107 is paid for 40 hours a week at his regular county pay rate even though he works full-time for the union. The union’s executive vice president, however, gets just four hours per week of paid leave for union activities.

Union leaders say they like the system just fine as it is.

Martin Bassick, president of Local 1107, said it doesn’t make sense for legislators to get involved in an issue that both sides have agreed upon.

“It’s in a contract and it’s not been in dispute,” Bassick said. “It’s never gone to arbitration.”

Nor does the arrangement benefit only the union, he said.

By having employees serve as stewards, the union has people already at the workplace who can help deal with personnel and provide feedback about safety issues, Bassick said.

“The union has a person right there in the shop and they can address it right then and there,” Bassick said.

As many as four chief stewards get 32 hours of paid time-off each week for union business. If the SEIU elects a president who isn’t a county employee, the county is required to give another 32 hours total of paid leave to be shared by the stewards according to schedules provided to the county’s human resources department.

The SEIU’s contract with Clark County also provides as much as 2,080 hours of paid leave each year for employees engaged in activities such as investigating grievances and attending legislative sessions, conferences and conventions.

Bassick said Kirner’s bill is “just another attack on unions that are protecting the middle class. This is politics as usual.”

Union leave provisions seldom are an issue in contract negotiations. For Clark County and the SEIU, for example, the key bargaining points are big-ticket items such as longevity pay and cost-of-living increases, which put millions of taxpayer dollars on the line.

But Kirner said the issue shouldn’t be part of bargaining at all.

“At the end of the day, they’re doing union business,” Kirner said, noting that taxpayer dollars are involved.

The county’s agreement with the firefighters union allows the union president to pick six officers and give them paid leave for activities that include educational conferences, seminars and training courses. They’re required to give eight days’ notice or more before taking the time away from their regular duties.

Firefighters can’t claim overtime pay when participating in union functions, under terms of the contract.

Payroll records show the firefighters union president also works regular shifts in addition to receiving union leave pay.

Beaman was unavailable for an inter­view about the issue, but said in an email that the union has a “very productive working relationship with the county.”

County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said he’s brought up the issue in the past, and any changes would have to come through the bargaining process, which requires give-and-take from both sides.

SCRUTINY BEYOND NEVADA

While now on the Legislature’s agenda, paid union leave has attracted more attention elsewhere.

In Arizona, the conservative think tank Goldwater Institute sued Phoenix and its police union to end the practice. That case hinged on a legal argument that the practice is tantamount to illegal gifts, forbidden by that state’s constitution. The Goldwater Institute won the case when the court determined union leave is a “pure gift” because the Phoenix Police Department receives nothing of value in return.

If an appellate court upholds that deter­mination, the practice would end statewide in Arizona, institute attorney Jon Riches said.

Utah lawmakers in 2011 passed legislation that prohibits paid union leave for public school teachers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Contact Ben Botkin at bbotkin@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2904. Follow @BenBotkin1 on Twitter.

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