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Attempts at pay reform slowed in Elyria

ELYRIA — Bringing business norms into the government setting is unnerving some as the city’s administration pushes for managers and supervisors to earn less overtime and earn that overtime hour for hour.

For five years, Mayor Holly Brinda and Safety-Service Director Mary Siwierka have pushed for changes to an ordinance that covers the pay, benefits and work rules of supervisors and non-union employees, colloquially known as Chapter 165 employees. However, the issue has since only moved slightly toward a revamp.

City Council previously rejected efforts to make the changes in 2013 and 2014.

“We are looking at these issues again to improve efficiency and be cost-effective in the city,” Brinda said. “… The general fund is not growing, so we have to look at doing things differently. Since the performance audit was completed, and based on the recommendations, we have made changes that have resulted in significant cost savings, probably in the neighborhood of $3 million. But it’s just not enough.”

Councilman Vic Stewart, D-at large and head of the Finance Committee, said a point of contention is the longstanding practice of having the Chapter 165 employees mirror those employees covered by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees bargaining group. It’s this “me too” philosophy that allows those non-union employees to get pay raises — as in December when Council voted to give non-union employees a 2 percent bump in pay to coincide with the pay increase a fact-finder’s report recommended AFSCME employees — and similar health insurance and holiday benefits.

“It has to be fair, and we are trying to work through that,” Stewart said of the changes.

He said Council is not giving the mayor pushback or fighting her on the concept.

“We are going to look into it to see if there is a significant savings,” he said. “We owe it to our constituents to see if there are cost savings.”

Three issues remain sticking points — exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a 40-hour work week and the elimination of minimums, Siwierka said.

The first, exemptions under FLSA, would dictate who is eligible for overtime as a nonexempt employee and who is exempt. Some of the Chapter 165 employees, despite having supervisory responsibilities, are classified as nonexempt employees. They receive overtime the same as an hourly employee.

Siwierka said if the city uses a FLSA rubric to determine exemption status, probably about 50 percent of the Chapter 165 employees would become exempt employees, meaning they would not be eligible for overtime.

There is also the issue of how much overtime should be paid.

“The city of Elyria, we pay more than what the Department of Labor dictates in the Fair Labor Standards Act,” Siwierka said. “We pay everyone overtime in an eight-hour day captured in a 24-hour period. That is the measure of overtime versus a 40-hour work week. We want to pay people what they work. We want it under a 40-hour work week and not an eight-hour work day.”

Additionally, the administration wants to eliminate minimums — a set number of hours an employee is guaranteed in overtime regardless of how many hours they work.

“If you are that management employee, in the current Chapter 165, you get four hours of overtime any time that you work beyond eight hours,” Siwierka said. “The only difference is when that overtime is right before or right after your regular shift. If it abuts the starting and ending times, the minimum is two hours. We are proposing employees are paid for what they work, whether that is 15 minutes or three hours. We are not expecting them to come in and not get paid, but we are saying it should be time for time.”

Similar language about overtime minimums is in the current union bargaining agreements.

There are about 75 employees covered under Chapter 165 in Elyria Municipal Court and in the offices of the mayor and law director. They also are the managers, supervisors and foremen who act as the middle management bridge between department heads and union employees. Unlike police officers and firefighters, they are often compared to the employees in AFSCME.

Chapter 165, Brinda said, is antiquated, full of instances where the language does not reflect changes in labor laws and confusing when management roles fail to match labor rules. Brinda said she started the process of changing Chapter 165 in 2012 with conversations with supervisors and department heads, and Council has tabled the legislation repeatedly.

Council President Mike Lotko, D-at large, said it’s Council job to make sure the changes are fair, make sense and the city is doing the right thing.

“We have to make sure we are doing the right thing by the city and the employees,” he said. “I think we are in the process of trying to figure that out.”

Lotko said the city cannot get into a situation where there is no incentive for employees to leave unions to become supervisors or to take afterhours and holiday calls.

“We have to make sure we get people to show up,” he said. “It may sound good and look good on paper, but we have to make sure we are not cutting off our foot in the process.”

From a financial standpoint, the changes make sense, said Councilman Jack Baird, R-at large and Finance Committee member. Baird said he may be the minority in that opinion, but it’s time for things to change.

“There are those that can say these employees do a good job and work hard and that is all well and good, but let’s be realistic and look at who we are representing,” Baird said. “These are good jobs, pretty good-paying jobs, and no one will get shortchanged with these changes.”

Stewart said the changes could help push negotiations with union employees if they see the direction the city is moving with supervisors and management leading the way. That does not mean employees have not reached out to Council members in anonymous letters and privately to express frustrations with being the pioneers in the city, he said.

“I think it is their position that what AFSCME gets, the Chapter 165 employees should get, so the city should negotiate any changes first,” Stewart said.

A Finance Committee meeting is set for 6 p.m. Feb. 27 to discuss the issue further.

These changes could reflect significant yearly savings, Siwierka said.

In 2015 and 2016, the cost for overtime between comp time and paid overtime for the Chapter 165 employees was between $280,000 and $288,000, Siwierka said.

“We are not proposing we can eliminate every hour of overtime and every hour of comp time because we are a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week provider of city services. We will always have employees working outside of normal business hours,” she said “But we do estimate we can see a reduction of 40 to 45 percent with the changes or about $120,000 annually.”

That money will come across all of the city’s funds and will not solely impact the general fund, which has seen its fair share of ups and downs in recent year as it is tied directly to income tax collections.

“We are always looking for efficiencies,” Brinda said. “The passage of Issue 6 did not change our needs to be conservative in our general fund. Issue 6 is valued and appreciated, but it is also earmarked for very specific things.”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter @LisaRobersonCT.



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