Governments paying union employees millions a year to perform union work

Clark County taxpayers pick up tab for tens of thousands of hours of paid union-leave time

Southern Nevada taxpayers expect their money to finance public safety or city services.

But how many expect their tax dollars to pay union employees to attend union conferences or lobby governments for higher pay and more union privileges?

Collective-bargaining agreements throughout Clark County — including its cities and public entities — explicitly give government labor unions almost 70,000 hours of paid-leave time each year to conduct union business, a Nevada Journal investigation found.

Although top union officials are employees of the county or city governments, paragraphs in the bargaining agreements specify that those employees are to be released from their duties on behalf of taxpayers to instead work — while continuing to be paid by taxpayers — for private organizations, their labor unions.

On-the-record costs to county taxpayers total at least $4.6 million annually, a review of 37 municipal labor contracts shows.

The most lucrative contract is between the City of Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which receives over one million tax dollars and 15,500 hours a year for union members to perform union work. Las Vegas also pays its Metro Supervisors Association and its Police Protective Association, Civilian Employees, Inc., more than $430,000 a year and $300,000 a year, respectively, for union employees to do work for their private organizations.

Police unions in Las Vegas aren’t the only labor groups receiving six-digit subsidies. The Clark County firefighters union received well over $400,000 in taxpayer dough for union business, and the near-bankrupt City of North Las Vegas forked over $600,000 for union firefighters to carry out union work. The Service Employees International Union Supervisors and SEIU Non-Supervised Employees took over $195,000 a year and over $300,000 a year, respectively, from Clark County taxpayers, for union activities.

Actual costs, however, are likely much higher. At least 18 bargaining agreements decline to specify an actual number of paid-leave hours, but instead authorize undefined amounts of time. One example is the City of Las Vegas contract with the Las Vegas Peace Officers Association. In Article 8, Section 4, it states: “A reasonable … number of Association officers and representatives … shall be allowed a reasonable amount of time” for representing members of the union.

In North Las Vegas, also, the city’s four collective-bargaining agreements merely authorize an undefined “reasonable amount” of paid union-leave time.

When asked what constituted a “reasonable amount” of leave time, neither city responded.

In the Clark County fire department last year, scandals cast a revealing light on the consequences of vague provisions in the collective-bargaining agreement.

According to paragraph 8.1 of that contract, six officers get unspecified and potentially unlimited leave for union business:

The Union President, shall select six (6) officers/members of the union who shall be granted leave from duty with full pay for business such as, but not necessarily limited to, attending educational conferences, seminars, and training courses for the improvement of the fire service. Leave requests shall be submitted in writing to the Fire Chief or designee eight (8) calendar days prior to departure or with as much advance notice as possible.

How such a provision can work out in practice was revealed in a March 2011 Las Vegas Sun story. According to county records, reported Steve Kanigher, 80 union members had taken 22,672 hours of leave for “union business” over five years.

Averaged, that comes to 4,534 hours annually. The contractual provision, however, actually authorizes up to 12,480 hours per year of taxpayer-paid leave for the county’s union firefighters. That provision remains in the newest version of that county bargaining agreement.

Government-union contracts in Clark County that explicitly authorize paid-leave time vary in amount. The Clark County Education Association (CCEA) teacher union is authorized almost 2,500 hours annually in paid-leave time. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) contract with the City of Las Vegas gives the union 2,880 hours of paid leave annually to dole out to members to use as the union sees fit. The cost to Las Vegas taxpayers is over $295,000.

Contracts vary not only in the number of union-activity hours taxpayers are required to fund, but also in what unions can do during those hours.

For example, the City of Henderson has contracted with the Henderson Police Officers Association (HPOA) to pay the entire 40-hour-per-week salary of the HPOA president, at whatever level of compensation he received before becoming president. In 2010, that totaled $122,461 and 2,080 hours paid by taxpayers for union business.

“The President will utilize annual and sick leave as if they [sic] were performing the role of an officer,” reads the grammatically challenged contract, “and report their [sic] sick and annual leave utilization to the individual responsible for their [sic] time entry into” the department’s PeopleSoft software.

The Henderson-HPOA contract also specifies an additional 720 hours, at a cost of over $98,000, for the union president or his designee to conduct union business such as “conventions, seminars, training, lobbying, etc.”

One of the HPOA president’s responsibilities under the bargaining agreement with Henderson is to “perform the duties of Police Labor Relations Liaison.”

In 2010, over $560,000 in salary and benefits went to full-time liaisons working exclusively for public-employee unions in the county, according to payroll data provided to TransparentNevada, Nevada Journal’s sister website.

The 2010-11 CCSD contract with the CCEA assures the teacher union of “the traditional approval of at least two hundred fifty (250) school days for association representatives to attend [union] meetings, conferences or conventions.” Additionally, another 50 “school days shall be available for the CCEA’s Community Foundation to use at its discretion.”

Given the seven-hour, 11-minute workday for classroom teachers specified by the contract, those 300 school days each school year would mean taxpayers are subsidizing 2,485 hours of union activities.

In addition to the paid-leave hours specifically set forth by the CCSD-CCEA contract, teachers can also be granted leave with pay to attend union “meetings, conferences, delegate assemblies [and] conventions,” if they have the approval of their principal and the district superintendent.

The 2007-11 contract between CCSD and the district’s Police Officers Association allocates to the union, each year, 500 hours leave with pay for union members “to attend association meetings, conferences, legislative sessions, conventions, or training sessions.” The cost to CCSD is more than $21,000 a year.

Among the contracts that avoid specificity is the one between the City of Las Vegas and the City Employee Association:

Seven (7) members of the Association Negotiating Team shall be granted leave from duty with full pay, when reasonable, for all meetings between the City and the Association for the purpose of renegotiating the terms of this contract. (Emphasis added.)

Leave for “Other Association Business” is similarly phrased:

Whenever conditions permit, Association officials may be granted leave from duty, with pay, for any reasonable and just cause as may be determined and granted by the City Manager. Approval for such leave by the City Manager shall not unreasonably be denied.

Union leave hours have always been “standard practice,” says Clark County District E Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani. State Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, who spent 10 years as part of the city labor union team that negotiated with the City of Las Vegas, agrees: “Leave time, uniform allowances, paid lunch hours — those were always on the table or in the contracts.”

In 2010, however, both local and state lawmakers targeted leave hours to save taxpayer money.

In March, Clark County District A Commissioner Steve Sisolak called for the county firefighters union, rather than taxpayers, to pay for union leave.

“The taxpayer is paying for the county to represent the county and is also paying for the union to represent the union,” he told the Las Vegas Sun.

Recently, when asked about the new contract continuing its open-ended language, Sisolak said he would have “preferred a cap” on the hours, indicating that lack of a fixed number of hours has been a factor in the over-use of leave time.

“I do support collective bargaining,” Sisolak told Nevada Journal, “but you do have to find ways to save money and find what’s essential for taxpayers.”

Giunchigliani disagreed with Sisolak on the paid-leave issue. She said paid union leave is used to offset other concessions, such as freezes on pay.

“Collective bargaining allows both sides to sit down and decide what’s best for the county,” said Giunchigliani. “Union leave has always been included in contracts in both public and private sector unions.”

David Hames, a management professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who studies collective bargaining, said that while unions usually demand increased paid-leave time, in the private sector they find it much tougher to obtain than in the public sector.

“Both sides have an understanding that [union leave] is on the table, especially if wage expenses could be cut,” said Hames. “There’s a tendency for private-sector management to play the tough guy more often, but [collective bargaining is] about seeking common ground, so if leave time is a way to get there, both sides will use it.”

Ray Bacon, executive director of the Nevada Manufacturers Association, highlighted the differences between private- and public-sector negotiations when he testified before the 2011 Legislature:

In the private sector, the negotiator for the union has to answer to shareholders.... In the public sector, the shareholders of the operation are the voters. Without sunshine in our negotiations, the voters and shareholders do not get a voice in what takes place. This creates a perceived imbalance in the negotiations.

Parks said the “whipsaw effect” of county negotiators trying to have their contracts match city contracts leads to increased leave time as well.

“Management or labor may see one group getting so many benefits and then be inclined to demand the same things,” Parks said. “They’re always going to try and see what they can get away with and how much they can get out of each other.”

Nevada Journal reached out to several unions for comment but received no responses.

During the 2011 Legislature, several bills sought to reform government-employee paid leave practices.

SB 342, introduced by Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, would have, among other things, prohibited union officers from being paid with public money to perform union activities. The bill, however, died in committee. Also failing to emerge from committee was Gov. Brian Sandoval’s SB 41, which would have eliminated mandatory collective bargaining.

The biggest change to collective bargaining came from SB 98, introduced by Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City. That bill, passed into law and signed by the governor, created a mediation session prior to arbitration in contract negotiations.

“This bill wasn’t quite as far as Republicans wanted to go, but was a bit farther than Democrats wanted to go,” said Hardy. “Collective bargaining will probably always exist in this state, but we’re trying to make it more productive and reduce costs for local budgets.”

In addition to salary and benefits, union officials — some of whom can receive unpaid leaves of absences for multiple years — are eligible for the state’s PERS benefits, despite spending much of their careers working exclusively for the private union.

Other union presidents and stewards not only receive full pay, but additional paid-leave time, accrued premiums and benefits for their union work.

For example, the University Medical Center’s contract with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) states that if the union president is an employee:

… he/she shall be granted 40 hours release time each week with pay including premiums and the accrual of all earned benefits to accomplish Union business. When an employee has completed his/her service as President, he/she shall be returned to his/her previous position without loss of any status or benefit governed by this Agreement.

UMC also allows another top SEIU official, its chief steward, 40 hours of weekly paid leave, as well as benefits and premiums.

Earlier this week, Clark County ratified a new contract with the SEIU. A draft version of the county provisions published on the Web expands the hours of paid leave in the “union bank” from 1,375 hours to 2,080 hours. The final version of the contract was not yet available online.

“I hear from constituents all the time who’ve lost their jobs and homes and have had to sacrifice, and they get frustrated over these prolonged negotiations that they don’t have a say in,” said Sisolak.

“Contracts didn’t get out of hand overnight,” he said, “but there needs to be more flexibility, and we need to realize we’re in a new time and faced with new challenges.”

Steven Miller is the managing editor and Kyle Gillis is an investigative reporter for Nevada Journal, a publication of the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more in-depth reporting, visit http://nevadajournal.com/ and http://npri.org/.

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