Deputy state’s attorneys try to unionize, but proposal faces questions
by Nat Rudarakanchana March 14, 2013 vtdigger.org A push to unionize deputy state’s attorneys and sheriffs may be premature, experts told a House committee on Wednesday. Critical details haven’t been ironed out, they said, before the crossover deadline this Friday.
The unionization effort is seen as a way to resolve what state’s attorney’s say is a frustrating freeze on the pay and benefits for the deputy state’s attorneys across the state who prosecute criminal offenses.
Bram Kranichfeld, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said uncertainties remained about how an existing executive committee of five states attorneys would interact with a new union, and how contract negotiations and management of local deputy state’s attorneys would work.
In remarks to the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, Kranichfeld added said there are also questions about the costs of the new union infrastructure.
“If the executive committee and executive director were to negotiate a contract, it raises the question as to what happens if an individual states attorney or sheriff says: I don’t agree with that, and I won’t abide by the contract … We don’t have the authority to force them to,” added Kranichfeld, poking another hole in the complex piece of labor legislation.
The House committee’s testimony about the labor bill comes as the panel faces a deadline Friday when bills must pass over to the Senate for them to be considered this session.
The state’s 14 state’s attorneys are elected by county-wide vote, and manage their local staff of deputy state’s attorneys. These deputies receive their salaries through an annual state budget appropriation, but aren’t technically state employees and aren’t members of the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA).
Deputy state’s attorneys have long complained about their compensation and benefits, citing pay cuts and freezes in the last several years. Chittenden County state’s attorney TJ Donovan told lawmakers the deputies simply do not have a voice in negotiations over working conditions, “plain and simple.”
Donovan’s 28-member staff handles about 5,000 to 6,000 criminal cases per year, but he lacks authority to set their pay or benefits. A mandated pay plan in 2007 set those levels.
“I’ll be brief. I support the right of deputy state’s attorneys to unionize. I support their right to engage in collective bargaining,” Donovan told the committee. “In the last couple of years, with pay cuts, pay freezes, it’s been extremely frustrating, not only for the deputies, but frankly, for the elected state’s attorneys, who have no authority.”
The frustration stems from an inability to explain to deputies why the cuts and freezes were imposed, and why state’s attorneys are powerless to stop them.
“This is all about money and the failure of the system to provide adequate compensation for the deputies,” said Lamoille County State’s Attorney Joel Page.
Still, Donovan questioned how a statewide union would interact with 14 local offices, which vary widely in size and caseload, and which traditionally manage their own affairs.
“It really gets to a question of units, of who we are bargaining with, and for. How does my authority as a Chittenden County state’s attorney extend to somebody in Windham county or Bennington county? I’m not sure it should, because of the uniqueness of this department,” he said.
“There does need to be a little more work. Whether or not there’s enough time in this legislative session, I don’t know,” said Donovan.
For Lamoille County State’s Attorney Joel Page, whose office consists of four employees, the basic point of the bill, whatever its complexities, comes down to getting better pay for deputies, especially senior ones who’ve maxed out on the pay scale for years.
“This is all about money and the failure of the system to provide adequate compensation for the deputies,” he said, calling the new push an act of “desperation” to break the “juggernaut” of the administration and Legislature’s failure to provide extra funding, despite repeated requests.
Still, Page’s solution isn’t necessarily to unionize. He said the lack of flexibility in labor contracts could lead to unintended consequences, including layoffs.
“The simple cure to all this is to just provide enough funding, so that we can fund the pay plan,” said Page. “This isn’t rocket science. It’s just a matter of the money. None of our employees are complaining about the other aspects of the job, as far as I know,” said Page.
He called the legislation as it stands a “vast minefield” which could cripple state’s attorneys statewide.
According to raw data from the VT Transparency website, salaries for most deputies ranged from about $40,000 annually to $80,000.
“We, as a department, absolutely support the deputies. We want to do what’s best by the deputies,” added Kranichfeld, formerly a deputy state’s attorney himself who switched jobs two months ago. “But we want to do it in the right way…We don’t want to rush through something and end up with a slew of unintended consequences.”