Union meeting leaves some Department of Correction workers with doubts
Norwich - Mark Bellaro, a lieutenant at Gates Correctional Institution, left a union meeting for correction officers Monday concerned that his fellow members may not approve a concessions agreement union leaders reached with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration on May 13.
More than 100 members of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees union met at the Holiday Inn to receive information about the tentative contract agreement.
"What happens if it's a 'no' vote?" Bellaro asked. "Does Connecticut become Wisconsin, where they come after union members? It concerns me that we do not have all the information (needed to vote) and we vote in three weeks."
The union represents 15,000 state employees, of which about 5,000 are correction officers, parole officers and other prison staff, said Larry Dorman, spokesman for the AFSCME, AFL-CIO, Council 4.
Dorman said all of the state's unions are beginning the process of holding membership meetings in hopes of securing "yes" votes to the contract agreement. He is also the spokesman for the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, which is endorsing the agreement.
"We think it's a good, principled agreement that will protect public services, keep people working in the horrible economy and will also keep money circulating on Main Street," Dorman said before the closed-door meeting.
The five-year agreement includes a zero wage increase in fiscal years 2011-12 and 2012-13 and a 3 percent wage increase every year for the subsequent three years. If union members approve the agreement framework, they will have "absolute job protection" during the first four years, Dorman said.
The agreement will also fully protect correction officers from layoffs if a prison closes. The state shut down Webster Correctional Institution in Cheshire in January 2010 and is in the process of closing J.B. Gates Correctional Institution in Niantic.
Brett Owen, vice president of 2,500-member AFSCME Local 1565, has worked at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution for 16 years.
He said many union members are concerned about what is included in the agreement. "All we've really seen is a summary of the agreement, and we have questions as to what the summaries really mean," Owen said. "One of the main concerns is the health care (insurance plans) because there's not really a lot of clarification on that."
All state union members must vote on the tentative agreement by June 17 in order for it to become effective July 1.
Luke Leone, president of AFSCME Local 1565, said that most of the union members' frustrations center on the "unknown specifics" of the agreement.
"They (the legislature) are asking us to agree with Value Based Healthcare. It's been two weeks since the agreement was reached and we haven't even seen what it entails," Leone said. "We don't expect to see it (the agreement) for another week, and then we're expected to have the ratification vote on it by June 17."
Value Based Health Care is based on employees "signing a commitment form each year promising to get scheduled yearly physicals, age appropriate diagnostics (such as a colonoscopy) and two free dental cleanings per years (sic)," according to a summary of the agreement union members received Monday night. "All of these employees - which we hope is everyone - will lower the costs of health care for everyone by staying healthier."
An hour into the meeting, a woman emerged from the members-only room. She placed her index finger against her left temple and pulled an imaginary trigger, then rolled her eyes and walked out the front door.
Two Corrigan correction officers who declined to identify themselves said that their main concern was the pension plan.
Currently, correction officers can retire after 20 years of service at any age. Newly hired officers will, under the new union contract, have to be at least age 50 with 20 years of service before they can collect their pensions. They may retire at any age with 25 years of service.
"I work face to face every day with rapists, murderers and child molesters, and most people don't want to do that," one of the two correction officers, who said she has worked at Corrigan for 18 years, said. "I took this job knowing that after 20 years, I could say thank you very much, I can go now. This sort of uncertainty is difficult."
Bob Jordan, a correction officer at Gates, has worked in three men's prisons during his nearly 14 years with the department. He said he plans to retire in seven years and would like the pension he was promised.
"I like the agreement, but it's complex in some of the provisions and it also has an emotional aspect as well," Jordan said. "No one will be entirely pleased, but in life, one must settle. A 'no' vote would be an unhappy event."
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