By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Pat Perry and Carolyn Bartlett have worked as housekeepers at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton for about five years and always enjoyed Christmas as the only holiday they could count on to spend with their families.
On Thursday, they came to the State House to protest Gov. Chris Sununu’s current negotiating position on the state labor contract, which would mean they would have to work Christmas day.
“I do my job proudly and I put all my heart into it. I stand here today and ask the governor to agree with the independent fact-finder’s recommendation for wage increases,” Bartlett said.
There are about 15 housekeepers who are impacted by the proposed change. They said they already gave up on having weekends off and now would be required to work on Christmas under the current proposal.
The independent fact-finder’s report recommended a roughly 2 percent increase for each employee for each of the two years under the master contract, said House Speaker Steve Shurtleff.
Money to pay for that is included in the current budget, he said.
Sununu’s office indicated that the request for them to work the holiday came from Veterans Home Commandant Peggy LaBrecque.
“The State of New Hampshire deeply appreciates all of the hard work our state employees do on a daily basis and especially to those who take care of our veterans during the holiday season.
Sununu’s spokesman Ben Vihstadt said: “This change came as a direct request from the Commandant of the New Hampshire Veterans home to ensure compliance with federal standards. Our veterans stood tall for us, and we believe they deserve the very best care at all times — especially over the holiday season.”
In a telephone interview, LaBrecque confirmed that she asked for the change through her labor negotiator this year and in previous years, without luck. She said there are essentially two issues.
One is that Christmas is the busiest day of the year for visitors and she wants the place to look tidy with the residents’ beds made and looking “as wonderful as it always does.”
The second issue involves federal compliance with the Veterans Administration on housekeeping duties and those of nursing providers. LaBrecque said that nursing providers at the home cannot be assigned to housekeeping duties and currently, she can’t schedule anyone to do the work Christmas day under the state contract.
Schedules are trimmed to allow staff to be with family and some have volunteered to work the holiday in the past, she said, but she cannot by contract schedule anyone and there is no guarantee someone will volunteer.
“This puts me in the cross-hairs of a compliance issue,”LaBrecque explained.
The issue of the Veterans Home workers is part of a larger one involving the state’s master contract, which covers over 8,000 employees.
The two-year master contract expired on June 30 after an impasse was declared in April. After mediation and a fact-finder’s report, the main issue is now coming down to raises.
Sununu has not agreed to those raises nor has he said he would be willing to put the contract on the Executive Council agenda for review as was requested Wednesday by Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, a Democrat who is running for governor.
In addition to Thursday’s press conference, members of the state employees union went to the council meeting on Wednesday to protest the lack of a contract.
Labor officials said the housekeeping workers are among the lowest labor grade workers in state employment.
“We are at the beck and call of everyone at the Veterans Home,” said Bartlett. “If there is a spill, we are there. If a resident needs a laugh, we are there. If the trash overfills, we are there. We say ‘NO’ to the governor trying to take this holiday away from us. I ask Governor Sununu, where would the state be without its state employees? Who would make sure that our veterans are being taken care of?” Bartlett said.
Rich Gulla, president of SEA/SEIU Local 1984, said he is not sure why the state is trying to take away this holiday from these workers, but it is “not productive, cruel and at this time of year, just miserly.”
One protester at the press conference in the Legislative Office Building, Nancy Brennan of Weare, was dressed as the Dickens character with a button reading “SCROOGE SUNUNO HUMBUG!”
Brennan noted she just performed as the ghost of Christmas past in a production of the Christmas Carol and had the opportunity to give the miserly Dickens character “a lesson.”
She stood with the state workers and others holding signs of the animated Disney character, the Grinch who stole Christmas from a village of “Whos.” Others held signs reading, “Respect State Workers” and “Fair Pay 4 State Employees.”
Shurtleff, a Democrat, thanked Bartlett for her story and asked the governor to withdraw the impasse and agree to give these workers the day off. Speaking as a veteran, and not as the speaker, Shurtleff said he has visited the home and said it may be that he would be a proud resident there someday.
“I have seen the wonderful job they do at the New Hampshire Veterans Home and this is absolutely ridiculous to not give these people that day off,” Shurtleff said.
Gulla, responding to a question from InDepthNH.org, said an unfair labor practice might be filed relative to the governor’s statements Wednesday to not put the contract on the Executive Council agenda.
“I believe the law states he ‘shall’ put it on the agenda. And quite frankly why wouldn’t he want to be transparent with his executive councilors on the process? What is he hiding?” Gulla said.
The matter of an impasse could also be taken up by the legislature, but Gulla said he would wait to resolve the issue over the governor sharing the contract on the Executive Council agenda before pursuing a legislative solution to the master contract impasse.
Right now, he said, “I think we are in uncharted waters.”
Shurtleff said he is hoping the matter could be handled at the Executive branch level and he hoped the governor would finish the negotiations. In his 16 years, he has never seen a state employee contract reach the legislature for a vote.
“I am hoping that the governor will finish the negotiations,” Shurtleff said.