As published in the Record Journal on Friday February 22, 2013
Wallingford municipal employees who could not attend a day of work because of Blizzard Nemo should not be forced into counting it as a vacation day.
Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. has requested this use of time-off from workers who stayed home when town hall was closed Feb. 11 due to snowfall. Fiscal conservatism of Dickinson has long helped Wallingford remain in solid financial shape, even during stormy economic times. Thus, in asking that staff count a day lost to Nemo as vacation, he’s at least acting with the best monetary interests of taxpayers in mind. “I have a hard time feeling the town should be paying people when they didn’t work,” Dickinson logically argued in a Feb. 14 memo (R-J, 2-16).
Problem is that this comes after the fact. Certain civic employees were told to attend work on Feb. 11 for assistance with cleanup efforts. Maybe additional individuals would have come in had they known beforehand that the alternative was a lost vacation day.
Employees in private sectors, or even other municipalities, justifiably might be unhappy if their boss requested similar sacrifice days after the storm. It’s therefore reasonable, as outlined by Local 1183 President Chuck Ballard (see his letter below), that at least one union representing Wallingford workers expects to file a grievance. “Town government offices have been closed in the past and have fulfilled their obligation to pay employees — so why is this situation any different?” Ballard persuasively writes. Especially since Dickinson’s decision is opposite some public policy in Connecticut.
In Meriden, Southington and Cheshire, municipal employees are not required to use vacation hours in order to receive wages for days when work is canceled. State staff also gets paid even if officials close Connecticut offices in extreme situations like Nemo, as was the case on Feb. 11. Comparatively, Dickinson’s request is unorthodox.
But more importantly, it seems retroactive, and based on unclear legal language. In his memo about the matter, Dickinson stated that he did “believe” that collective bargaining contracts do not require payment of wages unless an employee reports for work. Wallingford unions probably would have responded differently to this if a definite answer existed — and was widely known before Nemo — about whether it’s contractually permissible or not.
Some readers understandably may agree here with the mayor, who has made another tough decision in his decades-long tradition of holding the line on expenses. Wallingford retains sound monetary status partly because of Dickinson’s willingness to govern conservatively and, at times, unconventionally. But taking away vacation without employees knowing prior that those hours were at risk is unjust.
If Dickinson plans to continue requiring vacation time for workdays canceled amidst severe weather conditions, he must negotiate such language unambiguously into future union contracts — ensuring fair, even-handed treatment for both employees and community.