Union seeks to organize probate court workers

New London - State union leaders who are attempting to organize about 300 probate court workers stopped here Tuesday morning to make their case at a small press conference near the Regional Children's Probate Court at 1 Union Plaza.

The state's probate courts, which handle the administration of estates, conservatorships, trusts, adoptions and other children's issues, were regionalized in a 2011 restructuring meant to bring uniformity and fairness to the system and to save money. Statewide, there are 54 probate courts and six regional children's probate courts.

Organizers from Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Connecticut AFL-CIO say the probate court workers should have the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining and to enjoy the same salaries, benefits and job security as state Judicial Branch employees in comparable positions. The unions are calling on legislators to pass House Bill 5066, which would allow probate court workers to form a union. The bill also covers charter school and agricultural employees, who are being courted by different unions.

"These are experienced folks who have got a great deal of education and certification, and their working conditions are comparable to a McDonald's," said Matthew Brockman, legislative and policy representative from Council 4 AFSCME.

Erin Jones, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has worked as a probate court officer in New London's children's probate court for 5 1/2 year, said she was hired at the top of the salary scale and is not eligible for merit increases like others in the court system.

According to Brockman, the top pay for a probate court officer is $28.85 an hour, while comparable state Judicial Branch employees make as much as $44.77. The probate court employees also pay higher health insurance premiums, receive inferior vacation and sick time policies and have no ability to transfer from court-to-court, Brockman said. Additionally, he said, the employees have no job security because they are employed at the whim of probate judges, who are elected officials.

Jones said she was in a union in a previous job and it made a significant difference to her quality of life, particularly when she had a health issue and needed the union to "go to bat" for her.

"Through my union, we could negotiate salary, benefits and working conditions tat were commensurate with my experience and the demands of the job," Jones said. "Working for Probate Court Administration, we do not have a voice. We have no rights. We are at-will employees."

While local probate judges make hiring decisions, compensation and benefits are determined by the Probate Court Budget Committee, which was created under the legislation that reorganized the courts and are administered by the Office of the Probate Court Administrator in West Hartford.

At a Feb. 18 public hearing on House Bill 5066, Probate Court Administrator Paul J. Knierim, submitted a letter in opposition of the bill. He said the courts had established uniform pay ranges based on current market data and an internal pay equity study and had modeled benefits on Judicial Branch employees. Knierim said the consolidation of probate courts have saved the state $4 million annually and that the fiscal consequences of organizing would likely be large.

Under the proposal, the bill would make probate court employees subject to the State Employee Relations Act, but negotiations would be conducted on a court-by-court basis, "that would inevitably yield a patchwork of inconsistent employment arrangements," Knierim said. He said the current arrangement that allows probate judges, who are directly accountable to voters, to hire employees is critical.

The proposed bill is sponsored by members of the legislature's Joint Labor and Public Employees committee, including committee co-chair Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and currently is pending in the committee.

Peggy Buchanan, campaign manager of the state AFL-CIO, said unions are "the ticket to the middle class," and that in the current economy, the trend is toward low wages, part-time work with no benefits and workers who have no voice.

"Workers are putting up with a lot more than they should," Buchanan said. "There's a lot of fear out there. If we work together, we can have a collective voice."

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