David Cahill uses state email, draws a state paycheck, sits on state-issued office furniture and works in a state-leased office building. The word “state” is even in his job title: deputy state’s attorney for Windsor County.
But when Cahill and other employees of the state’s attorneys’ and sheriffs’ offices wanted to join the state employees union, they couldn’t: That’s because they work for the county — not the State of Vermont.
“I have a state employee ID with a state employee ID number,” says Cahill. “I have never had any interaction with county government, so it would be a surprise to me if I were a county employee.”
At the request of Cahill and some of his colleagues, the Vermont State Employees Association has asked the Vermont Labor Relations Board to rule on whether it can unionize the 155 employees who work for the elected state’s attorneys and sheriffs in Vermont’s 14 counties. Three weeks ago, the state’s attorney employees put it to a vote and came out overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing under VSEA.
VSEA staff attorney Abigail Winters argues that the employees clearly work for the state, noting among other things that their pay comes from the same pot of money the legislature appropriates for state payroll.
“The law is pretty clear,” Winters says. “You have a right to be in a bargaining unit or you are exempt. We don’t see these workers in any of the exemptions anywhere in the law.”
But the Shumlin administration is fighting the union drive, arguing that the workers are county employees under the law, and therefore ineligible to join VSEA. Responding to the union’s filing, special assistant to the attorney general Steven Collier wrote that state’s attorneys, sheriffs and their employees certainly represent the state’s interests “in a colloquial sense,” but says they do not qualify as executive-branch employees under the State Employees Labor Relations Act.
“If you look at it superficially and say, the state pays you, yeah, they do,” says Collier. “But the state pays legislators and the state pays the judiciary and the state pays contractors. The question is, who do you work for? And they don’t work for us.”
In his written filing with the labor board, Collier added, “It does not appear that VSEA considered county employees to be state employees during at least the preceding 42 years.”
So what changed? State coffers, for one thing.
When the state imposed 3 to 5 percent pay cuts on state workers during the Great Recession, the state’s attorneys’ and sheriffs’ employees took the hit, too. But when the salary cuts were restored in May, Cahill’s colleagues learned that, unlike other state workers, those earning less than $60,000 wouldn’t be getting a 2 percent cost-of-living increase.
Cahill admits that the disparity frustrated him and some of his fellow prosecutors, some of whom earn “40-something thousand dollars a year and live with their parents.” Cahill sees unionizing prosecutorial staff as a solution to the problem of “How are we going to attract talented young prosecutors with $40,000 salaries when they have $120,000 in law school debt?”
That said, Cahill insists, “It isn’t about the money. We literally don’t have anyone to talk to, when it comes to our working conditions, our salary, our benefits, because everyone points the finger and says, ‘Not me.’”
Cahill and four fellow prosecutors conducted a series of votes on unionization that wrapped up July 30, involving deputy state’s attorneys, victim advocates and support staff. Of the 72 state’s attorney employees who cast ballots, the vote was 51 to 16 in favor of unionization. On the question of joining VSEA — rather than forming their own union — state’s attorney employees voted 64 to 14 in favor of joining the state’s bargaining unit.
While just over half of the 109 state’s attorneys’ employees cast ballots, Cahill sees the results as significant. The number who voted “yes” represents an “absolute majority” of Vermont’s deputy state’s attorneys, he notes, including those who did not vote.
Christina Rainville, a deputy state’s attorney in Bennington County, opposed the unionization effort in a formal motion filed with the VLRB. In it, she alleges workers in her office walked out of a meeting with the VSEA because the organization’s reps became hostile under questioning.
Rainville says she is not antiunion — she was a Teamster in high school while employed at a sporting-goods store in New Jersey. But she opposes joining VSEA primarily because she and her colleagues would lose their free disability benefit, which pays 67 percent of an employee’s salary — up to $10,000 per month — should a serious illness make them unable to work. Under its contract with the state, VSEA doesn’t provide that.
Rainville, who supports a husband and two children, has a preexisting medical condition, which she declined to discuss, that she says would make it virtually impossible to secure disability coverage on the private market.
“It’s a huge benefit that far offsets whatever benefit people think we’re going to get from joining the union,” says Rainville, who worked as district trial counsel for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission prior to coming to Vermont.
Beyond that, Rainville simply objected to the VSEA filing a petition on the workers’ behalf before they had even taken a vote on whether to join the state employees union. Now that a vote has been taken, Rainville says she’s considering whether to withdraw her motion to intervene.
The union drive is also dividing the Democratic candidates for attorney general. Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, who was endorsed by VSEA and the Vermont Sheriffs Association, supports the right of his staff to join the state employees union. During the recession, Donovan notes that his employees weathered mandatory pay cuts along with the rest of the state workforce. Now they should be entitled to the same cost-of-living increases, he says.
“It’s a question of fairness,” Donovan says.
Attorney General Bill Sorrell takes a different view. The 15-year incumbent says his office counseled the Department of Human Resources that under the law, the employees work for the county and are ineligible to join the state union. Asked whether he personally believes the employees should have the right to unionize under VSEA, Sorrell hedges.
“On the issue of salary and benefits, it makes sense to me that they should be able to have the strength in numbers of collective bargaining,” says Sorrell. But then he adds, “We see the merit in the argument that HR wanted to make. We signed off on that legal argument.”
Asked whether he would support changing the law to specify that state’s attorneys’ and sheriffs’ employees are state workers, Sorrell offers, “I wouldn’t oppose it.”