Scarborough Public Works union Shop Stewards, from left, Ron Tillson, Chris Pallotta and Spencer Rice represent a total of 15 public works employees in Scarborough. It is the first time in the town’s history that any members of the department have unionized. Sean Murphy / The Forecaster

A group of Scarborough Public Works employees, newly unionized in the wake of a pandemic-related measure last spring that the town said would protect municipal employees’ interests, plan to picket at town hall Friday to protest an impasse in contract negotiations.

The picket comes after the failure of 11 negotiation sessions, including one run by a mediator. Still, town officials and members of the union, affiliated with the Teamsters and made up of 15 of the Public Works Department’s 29 employees, said this week they want to work together to find a solution.

Chris Pallotta, Spencer Rice and Ron Tillson met with The Forecaster this week to explain why they unionized and what they hope to accomplish with their contract demands.

A large part of the initial motivation, they said, was employees’ not getting paid fully following the town’s mandate that non-union municipal employees enter into the Maine Department of Labor’s WorkShare program at the outset of the pandemic in 2020. The program allows employers to voluntarily reduce the hours of staff in lieu of layoffs and employees to collect a partial unemployment benefit.

“People weren’t getting their money at all,” Rice said.

Town Manager Tom Hall said this week that at the time, a large number of municipal employees were unable to work full time due to pandemic-related restrictions. Scarborough, like many other municipalities, was under pressure to slash the budget to prevent an increase in the 2021 budget and, therefore, the tax rate.

“We were in a period of great uncertainty and unknown (about) what was coming at us,” Hall said. “We didn’t have the ability for our folks to perform their normal duties.”

Rather than laying people off, Hall said the town opted for a compromise: Cut hours and paychecks in half for municipal employees and have them fill the void by applying for partial unemployment benefits, coupled with federal stimulus funds. The town ultimately allowed employees to resume full-time work in the last week of July 2020, but union members said the three months before were rough. Pallotta said his gross weekly income was cut in half to $546, but he still had to pay for full benefits out of that half, leaving him with a net pay of $205.

The WorkShare program was supposed to provide the second half of Pallotta’s and everyone else’s paychecks, but there was another problem with the program: With tens of thousands of Mainers applying for full and partial unemployment all at once, many public works employees did not get compensated right away. Tillson said he didn’t get his first unemployment payment from the state for at least three weeks, and the headaches didn’t stop there.

“It wasn’t consistent,” he said. “I got paid once, then went three weeks.”

Tillson said he burned through his savings and ultimately had to take on extra work through a friend to make ends meet. Employees with large families to support had an even tougher time, he said.

There was a psychological component, too. Pallotta said he had weathered other cutbacks in the past, ranging from changes in insurance to the elimination of department pagers, because he knew that no matter what, the town would always give him a full week’s work and a full week’s pay. Pallotta said he believed Hall meant well, but the impact was demoralizing, both for him and his colleagues.

“After 20 and a half years, I’m getting on unemployment, and I’m thinking, ‘Why?'” he said.

Rice, whose wife at the time was expecting their first child, had taken a job with the department because he expected more stability with a municipality than in a private company. The WorkShare incident, he said, shook his confidence.

“There’s no more security in a job that’s supposed to be secure,” he said.

This week, Hall and Assistant Town Manager Liam Gallagher said they did not regret the WorkShare-related solution they employed in 2020. “I think the alternative was worse options,” Gallagher said, but both acknowledged that they didn’t expect it would be so harmful to morale.

“That was a blind spot for me, and a bit of a revelation,” Hall said.

Pallotta, Rice and Tillson, along with 12 other colleagues, signed cards making their unionizing official as of May 26, 2020. Now, after months of negotiations, both parties have still not arrived at a contract. The union has a list of issues, but chief among them are low pay rates compared to similar-sized departments in other communities, a lack of training to prevent injuries on the job and a lack of compensation for hours they are expected to remain on call on the weekends, particularly during snowstorms.

Gallagher, who has served as the town’s chief negotiator, noted that some of the union’s demands, such as raising base pay to be more competitive, are reasonable, but to give the union everything it wants will cost more than $450,000 in the contract’s first year alone, which he said the town can’t afford.

“Out of the gate, I had a really hard time,” he said.

The union is forbidden by law to go on strike, but members will be holding an informational picket in front of town hall on Friday. Both the union members and town officials said this was the first time in memory that municipal employees had ever picketed. All picketers, Pallotta said, will be officially off the clock.

Pallotta said he is trying to keep the negotiations civil, and even though the WorkShare program still remains a sore subject for him, he said he doesn’t have animosity toward Hall or Gallagher.

“At the end of the day, they were trying to do the right thing,” he said.

Hall said he looks forward to continuing negotiations and working out a contract. He said he has often described the public works crews as unsung heroes.

“They won’t find a larger supporter than me,” he said.

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