A union representing municipal workers in Portland has put the spotlight on $240,000 in merit bonuses the city quietly awarded to certain employees recently, saying the payments violated its collective bargaining agreement and Maine labor law.

“It has come to the (union’s) attention that the City of Portland has awarded bonuses to select members within the bargaining unit without negotiating with the union,” reads a letter dated July 14 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93 to the city’s labor relations manager.

“This is a clear violation of the collective bargaining agreement as well as established Maine labor law that requires such changes be negotiated with the union.”

The bonuses became public at a time when the city just passed a $261.8 million municipal budget with a 5.9% increase in the tax rate and as the city has been challenged by rising costs from inflation, increased homelessness and an influx of asylum seekers, in addition to its staffing woes.

AFSCME Council 93 represents Portland public works employees in AFSCME Local 481 as well as employees of the Barron Center, the city-run facility that provides long-term care – but the letter was sent at the request of Local 481, said Andy O’Brien, communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO, which shared a copy of the letter with the Press Herald.

The payments came from salary savings from staffing vacancies in the budget year that ended June 30, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said in a statement Thursday.


She said the bonuses were for staff who have taken on additional responsibilities and work as a result of those unfilled jobs, and that they did not require City Council approval.

“We are in receipt of communications from some of the unions and will be meeting with them soon to discuss further,” Grondin said. She did not say what other unions had raised questions about the bonuses.

City Manager Danielle West said in a text message late Thursday that it was her office, in conjunction with the finance department and the guidance of department heads, that awarded the bonuses in accordance with the city charter, approved budget orders and the city’s personnel policies.

When asked for more details on how many people received the bonuses and what the total surplus was from staff vacancies last year, West said the finance department would need to provide that information.

The funds for the bonuses could not have been used to reduce the current year’s tax rate increase, though, West said, as the city doesn’t carry over funding from budget year to budget year and the numbers wouldn’t be final for a formal carryover until completion of an audit, which can take up to 270 days after year’s end.

A memo from the city’s finance director in May said it takes about $147,290 of increase to the tax levy to raise the city’s mil rate by $0.01, and about $2 million of tax levy increase to raise the mil rate 1%.


The city has been struggling with staffing shortages for over a year, and West cited them as a major challenge when she unveiled her budget proposal in April.

She also said last winter that staffing shortages don’t necessarily result in significant cost savings. “People look at the budget piece and say, ‘Oh, you must have a ton of cost savings. How are you using that money?’” West said in February. “But we don’t, and the reason why we don’t is because – in order to address those needs and do that everyday work – we have to use a lot of overtime.”

Jim Durkin, legislative director for AFSCME Council 93, declined to provide more information about the bonuses or what the union has heard from its members, saying he was waiting for more information from the city.

“We’re hoping to meet with them soon and get the matter resolved as soon as possible,” he said.

The letter says employees covered by the union’s contract must have their wages negotiated. “You must immediately cease and desist directly giving increases in wages through ‘bonuses,’ ” it states. “The union demands that city officials directly bargain these bonuses.”

The union also asked the city’s labor relations manager for all information on the bonuses, including the amounts and the names of the employees who received them, and asked to meet with the city to resolve the issue.

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