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Trying to save money may cost the city

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

When the city of Santa Fe furloughed hundreds of employees in April in response to a pandemic-induced budget crisis, many called it a controversial decision – but it may prove to be an expensive one, as well.

The Public Employee Labor Relations Board issued a ruling Wednesday finding city officials had committed an unfair labor practice by failing to provide proper notification before issuing the furloughs. As a result, the city will have to pay damages to affected employees, with the exact amount being decided at a later date.

The complaint had been filed by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3999, the union for city employees, in April, just before city councilors narrowly approved a first wave of furloughs.

Chris Armijo, a council representative for AFSCME, and Marcos Esquibel, an employee with the city of Santa Fe, tape a sign to a truck window in April before a protest over the city’s plan to furlough workers during the pandemic. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Those furloughs saw many lower-wage employees take a deeper pay cut, sometimes as high as 40%. At the time, many employees said they also didn’t qualify for unemployment, exacerbating the economic loss brought on by the furlough.

That frustration became palpable when union members organized a demonstration outside Santa Fe City Hall ahead of the council’s vote. AFSCME members took a vote of no confidence in Mayor Alan Webber in August, with the furloughs cited as one of the primary reasons.

The union’s attorneys stated in their complaint that the city did not notify employees 28 days before furloughs were set to begin, a requirement in the bargaining agreement between the union and the city.

AFSCME also alleged the city did not provide relevant documentation regarding the furloughs, such as how city officials calculated an estimated $100 million deficit caused by the pandemic.

The city had said the fiscal emergency brought on by the pandemic forced them to issue furloughs earlier than the 28-day requirement. The pandemic crushed Santa Fe’s tourism market, depleting the city of a traditionally reliable revenue source.

The city spent a large part of 2020 making deep budget cuts and reorganizing city departments.

“Rapid decisions had to be made to address the burden,” Senior Assistant City Attorney Christopher Ryan told Board members Wednesday.

Labor Relations Board Hearing Officer Thomas Griego ruled in September that the city committed a violation by not providing request documentation.

However, he said the city forgoing the 28-day requirement was allowed, given the circumstances, and elected not to award any damages to employees.

The union soon filed an appeal, claiming the city owed employees damages for wages lost during the furloughs.

In the ruling issued by the Labor Relations Board on Wednesday regarding the appeal, two key changes were made: the 28-day violation was labeled a prohibited practice and the city would have to pay damages.

“The city’s failure to provide the length of notice … constituted a prohibited labor practice,” Board Chair Marianne Bowers said when issuing the ruling.

The city and union will now have to negotiate how much each furloughed union member will receive in damages. If an agreement cannot be reached, the Labor Relations Board will render a decision.

The parking, recreation and library divisions saw some of the largest cuts, Local 3999 President Gilbert Baca said. Those who received furloughs of 16 hours per week will most likely receive higher damages than those furloughed for fewer hours. Only union members are eligible to receive any damages.

“We tried to work with the city from day one,” Baca told the Journal after the hearing. “They just try to shove stuff down our throats and justice has prevailed today for my members.”

Webber and Ryan declined a phone interview with the Journal.

The exact amount of damages is still undecided, but union representatives have at least one figure they’ll bring to the negotiating table.

When the city announced the first wave of furloughs, it stated they would save around $1.4 million at the time. Attorney Stephen Curtice, who represents AFSCME, said that could be a starting point for negotiations, but a lack of information from the city makes it difficult to know.

“I don’t know how they came up with that number,” Curtice said. “They did not provide that to us.”

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