Gov. Paul LePage’s administration and the union that represents state employees reached an agreement Tuesday over how to handle layoffs of federally funded state workers as a result of the federal government shutdown.
The deal was reached despite the emergence Tuesday of a tape recording in which Le- Page can be heard saying that he declared a civil emergency last week in order to nullify the labor contract with state employees.
LePage made the statement Monday while speaking with members of a conservative women’s group at Dockside Grill in Falmouth. He told the Greater Portland chapter of the Informed Women’s Network that the Maine State Employees Association refused to discuss ways to minimize the impact of the shutdown on state employees whose jobs are funded entirely or partially by federal dollars.
Union officials told him they will consider suing the state, LePage said at the restaurant.
“So I thought about it, and we exercised the civil emergency, which means that their contract is null and void until after the crisis,” LePage said, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by the liberal blogger Mike Tipping.
The women laughed after LePage’s comment.
The recording emerged Tuesday morning as representatives from the LePage administration and the union were meeting to negotiate an agreement about how to handle the layoffs. Both sides had been in negotiations for eight days trying to work out a deal.
Maine has 2,739 state employees whose positions receive some amount of federal funding. Nearly 100 have been laid off as the federal shutdown has blocked funding for certain state operations. LePage last week said that all 2,739 employees will eventually be laid off unless federal funding is restored by Oct. 17, which is Thursday.
During negotiations Tuesday, union officials asked the management negotiators if LePage’s recorded statements reflect the administration’s intent to invalidate the union contract, said Tim Belcher, the union’s general counsel and lead negotiator. Belcher said that Breena Whitcomb, the chief negotiator for the state’s Bureau of Human Resources, and Cynthia Montgomery, the bureau’s chief counsel, assured the union that the contract was in full force and there were no discussions to invalidate it.
Belcher described the talks Tuesday as “professional and productive.”
By the end of Tuesday, both sides had reached an agreement on a conceptual framework.
According to a statement released by LePage, the deal calls for the state to pay for employees’ health benefits during their layoff period; for the state to waive the requirement that employees must search for work during the time they are collecting unemployment benefits; and for employees to be paid with accrued vacation or leave time if the federal government does not provide them with back pay after the shutdown ends.
“We have been working closely with the union since last Friday, and we appreciate that they recognized this is an unprecedented situation that required creative solutions,” LePage said in a statement. “When we can work together to benefit our hard-working state employees, not to try to score political points, we all win in the end.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the elimination of the requirement that laid-off employees look for work in order to receive benefits was made possible by LePage’s civil emergency declaration. She declined to answer questions about LePage’s recorded comments.
Other states are confronting layoffs of federally funded employees, but so far, no other governor has declared an emergency.
LePage has a habit of saying one thing to reporters and legislative leaders and something entirely different when speaking to supporters in private, said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland.
“Statements like this breed nothing but mistrust and suspicion,” Alfond said of LePage’s recorded comments. “That’s why we previously asked the governor to put more specifics in his declaration of a civil emergency. We want to know exactly what he plans to do, and we want an end date, so it doesn’t allow him to break any law or contract because he has simply declared a state of emergency.”
Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, said LePage’s statements complicated negotiations with the “professionals” in the state’s Human Resources Bureau.
He said the union never threatened to sue state government. He said union officials had told LePage they are willing to negotiate with him in “good faith” but are not willing to waive their contractual rights.
Quint also said the Contract Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from enacting any law that retroactively impairs contract rights. “The governor does not have the authority to do this,” he said.
Tipping, who works for the Maine People’s Alliance and Maine People’s Resource Center, said the person who made the recording of LePage attended the event, but Tipping declined to provide the person’s name.
LePage met Tuesday morning with legislative leaders to discuss the plan for additional layoffs if the government shutdown continues past Thursday.
Alfond, who attended the meeting, said the layoffs would be staggered. The timing of the layoffs would be based on several factors, including an agency’s level of federal funding, whether an agency is still waiting to receive federal funding, and what proportion of an individual employee’s salary is paid for by federal dollars, he said.
House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport said LePage and legislative leaders discussed how to protect Maine’s workers and the state’s economy from the “dysfunction” taking place in Washington.
He said the state needs to develop a plan so it can be prepared to handle such situations in the future.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:firstname.lastname@example.org