Council 93 takes fight for Howard Center workers to Vermont Courts 04/04/2014

After several months of attempting to convince Vermont’s largest human services provider to comply with a state law mandating a modest pay three-percent increase for its workers, Council 93 is hauling the organization into court to get members the money they both need and deserve. 

The union filed suit  last month in the Civil Division of Chittendon Superior Court seeking a declaratory judgment that would require the Howard Center to immediately pay its workers the entire portion of the increase. 
Last May, the Vermont State Legislature passed an appropriations bill that included a three percent increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates to providers like the Howard Center effective November 1, 2013.  The bill also called for a “commensurate increase in compensation for direct care workers.”  The legislation was signed into law by Governor Peter Shumlin on May 14, 2013.

But while other provider organizations complied with the law, Howard Center management has refused to provide the increase.  Even worse, the Howard Center is attempting to credit a pay increase negotiated two years ago toward the three percent.  The actions of management forced the union to bring the matter before a judge in an effort to put the money in the pockets of the nearly 700 hard-working men and women represented by Local 1674. “Resolving disputes in the court system is always a last resort for AFSCME,” said Council 93 Executive Director Frank Moroney.  “Unfortunately, the leadership of the Howard Center has left us with no other choice.  It’s our hope that this legal action will motivate Howard Center leaders to stop diverting the dedicated increase to other uses.  If not, we are committed to fighting as long as it takes until we achieve justice under the law.”

Since Howard Center management accepted the more than $1 million in funds from the appropriations bill but did not pass it on to its workers, AFSCME’s lawsuit includes claims the Howard Center has “unjustly enriched” itself with Medicaid funds and has “unlawfully converted” those funds for its own use. 
It’s unclear at this time how those funds are being used by the Howard Center.  But, one thing is crystal clear: The direct care staff has seen very little in terms of recent pay increases while Howard Center Executive Director Todd Centybear’s compensation has increased dramatically over the past several years.  A review of available Howard Center federal tax return documents shows Centybear’s compensation jumped $51,175. in one year alone.  (2010 to 2011)  From 2005 to 2011, Centybear’s compensation has increased by 58% to more than $250,000.  Unfortunately, the organizations tax returns for the past two years are not yet available online.  According to a recent article  by Seven Days political columnist Paul Heintz, Howard Center Board Member Karen O'Neill attributed Centybear’s increases to a “one-time deferred compensation payment” noting that “otherwise Centybear's wages have increased by just 2 percent a year.”  But the facts in the organization’s tax returns show that is simply not true.  Deferred compensation and other paid benefits aside, Centybear’s base pay jumped $46,831 from 2010 to 2011an increase of more than 28%! 

Over the past several months, AFSCME members and staff have been visiting the homes of Howard Center workers to educate them on the 3% issue and what the union is doing to fight on their behalf.  The visits have also provided the workers with an opportunity to become dues-paying members of Local 1674. AFSCME volunteer member organizers have been a critical part of these visits.  They include people like Council 93 retiree Ed Keefe who recently shared his on the campaign in a video interview.

In addition to the home visits and local meetings, Council 93 took to the airwaves with a two-week paid radio campaign  that has drawn a lot of attention to the lawsuit and other issues at the Howard Center.

The overall campaign has been a tremendous success.  Turnout of regular local union meetings and weekly organizing meetings is steadily increasing. And, since the campaign started, the number of dues paying members to Local 1674 has nearly tripled.  The rapid growth and the fire ignited within the local seems to have the management team at the Howard Center a bit unnerved.  A few months ago, Howard Center Operations Director Lorraine Jenne sent an email to all Howard Center staff advising them to treat union members and staff as “unwanted guests.”  But as the AFSCME radio commercial states, “We are not guests.  We’re the union and we’re here to stay.”