December 17, 2013

LePage sends layoff notices to 58 state employees

The union president says layoffs are unlikely and the reasons LePage cites for the notices do not apply.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Gov. Paul LePage notified 58 federally funded state employees Monday that they could be laid off, in what he said was a pre-emptive step in the event of another shutdown of the federal government.

The president of the state employees union said the layoff notices were unnecessary because Congress is expected to complete a deal to avert a shutdown.

The governor made the layoff notices public in a press statement. In prepared remarks, he said they were issued to comply with a requirement in the state’s collective bargaining agreement with the Maine State Employees Association.

He said the contract is not flexible so he had to send the layoff notices even though the U.S. House voted last week to pass the federal budget to avoid a shutdown Jan. 15. The U.S. Senate is expected to take the final vote as soon as Tuesday.

“I was opposed to the October shutdown, and I am opposed to a shutdown in January,” said LePage. “But the MSEA contract is not flexible. It does not allow for late notice of layoff, even in circumstances like these, where there is a strong possibility that the notice will not be needed. The union contract does not take into account government shutdowns or any other unforeseen factors.”

Ginette Rivard, president of the Maine State Employees Association, said the notices were unnecessary but not surprising, given LePage’s contentious relationship with the union.

“Here are some facts we already know: Under our union contracts, Gov. LePage is required to give state of Maine workers at least 10 work days notice if he is going to lay them off, so there’s no need whatsoever for him to have done anything yet,” Rivard said in a prepared statement.

This isn’t the first time the state employees union and LePage have clashed over the governor’s response to a federal funding crisis. In the fall, the governor granted himself sweeping powers by calling a civil emergency, saying it was meant to ensure that federally funded state employees could quickly collect unemployment benefits during the first federal shutdown.

Democrats and members of the union worried that LePage was using the emergency to circumvent portions of the collective bargaining agreement.

The union later challenged his decision to temporarily lay off more than 50 workers in the Department of Health and Human Services, saying that the Social Security Administration had notified the state in September that Maine would be reimbursed for keeping those employees at work during the shutdown.

LePage kept the emergency in effect for nearly two days after the shutdown ended in mid-October. Over that period, the administration and the union met to discuss potential changes to the contract. The union did not agree to any concessions.

It’s unclear if the layoff notice requirement was part of those talks, but the governor referred to it several times Monday in his statement.

Nonetheless, Rivard said Monday’s delivery of the layoff notices was wrong.

“Gov. LePage could have waited for facts,” she said. “The U.S. Senate is expected to vote any day on the compromise budget. In addition, the current federal budget provides for federal funding through Jan. 15, 2014. While that’s less than a month away, in the world of politics, it’s more than enough time to pass another federal budget.”

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

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