SJC decision means New Bedford must pay back wages for furloughs
By Aimee Chivaroli
New Bedford Standard Times
NEW BEDFORD - A Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision means the city will have to pay back employee wages from a 2009 furlough of City Hall workers.
In the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, former Mayor Scott Lang issued a 2009 executive order to close city offices at noon on Fridays, requiring City Hall workers to take unpaid furloughs. Due to the reduced hours, employees earned less money, according to a statement from the City Solicitor's office.
The union representing the city workers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 93, challenged Lang's order. And in November 2011, the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board found the reduced work hours constituted an unfair labor practice.
"The SJC's decision exhausts the city's options for judicial appeal," stated the press release from spokeswoman Elizabeth Treadup Pio.
The city is now required to pay back municipal employees for wages lost because of the CERB decision, according to the city statement. The chief financial officer is "evaluating a number of potential funding sources" according to the release.
The amount the city owes is being determined and CFO Ari Sky said he could not give a ballpark estimate of how much the city might owe. He said he wanted to provide accurate information and that would take a few days to calculate.
Sky said an interest rate of .18 percent accrued on the back wages, which is equal to roughly $3,000 a year. He also identified two possible funding sources.
He said there is about $7.8 million in the stabilization or "rainy day" fund. Additionally, he said the state recently notified the city of $2.7 million available in "free cash," or a revenue source from unrestricted funds from operations in the previous fiscal year, that could be used if necessary. However, Sky said it has not yet been determined how the free cash funds will be used.
The CFO also said there are over 300 AFSCME members and the city needs to work with the union to figure out which members worked for the city at the time and had to take the furlough.
More Video: New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell talks about under construction Cove Walk where in long term city hopes to build park for the Cove neighborhood.
Former Mayor Lang said he does not regret the furlough and was glad he was able to save some jobs.
"I don't regret doing the furlough because it saved at the time...;between 66 and 89 AFSCME jobs," Lang said. "No one was looking forward to another massive layoff in the city of New Bedford."
Lang said he had laid off between 180 and 190 people in Feb. 2009 due to cuts in state aid which included AFSCME workers and police and fire personnel. "We had about six months in the year in which we had to make dramatic cuts," he said.
"I was looking for a way to save jobs," Lang said. "We were literally threadbare at that point with police and fire."
The former mayor said he wanted to keep a strong city workforce and not subcontract out for jobs. He also said he didn't want to raise taxes for people in the city. The furloughs ended in late June 2011.
Mayor Jon Mitchell in a written statement said that Lang's decisions left him in a difficult position.
"The City's 2009 decision to furlough city employees left my administration in a difficult legal position in fending off the union's challenge," Mitchell said. "I appreciate the diligent efforts of the City's legal team in fighting an uphill battle on behalf of the City's taxpayers."
Tweets by @AFSCME93