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Union: State 'Marginalizing' Liquor Store Employees [VIDEO]

The employees union is charging the state with illegally changing employment agreements for part-time employees.

State Employees’ Association SEIU Local 1984 filed unfair labor practices complaints against the state on Dec. 6, unhappy with the treatment its liquor commission employees had been receiving in the last six months.

The two charges were filed after union officials say they were unable to get any response from the state dealing with the allegations. The charges specifically focus on the treatment of the liquor commission’s part-time employees, about 1,200, who have seen changes in their schedules and pay that have cost, on average, about $2,500 annually for each employee.

The changes to schedules and pay, the union claimed, were done unilaterally by the state and violated the collective bargaining rights of the employees. The state, the union claimed, had designated the part-timers “not public employees” and therefore did not have to adhere to the union’s contract while at the same time forcing the employees to adhere to other parts of the contract.

Diana Lacey, the president of SEA, likened the actions by the state as “the Walmartization” of liquor stores, “in a race to the bottom” against state workers.

“While liquor store sales and profits are skyrocketing, how appropriate is it for the state to be marginalizing the very workers that make this possible?” Lacey asked.

Lacey said the union had “exhausted” all other options before filing the complaints. She said officials met with liquor commissioners and appointees of Gov. John Lynch’s appointments, including the employee relation manager, Matt Newland, to try and resolve the issue, to no avail.

Lacey alleged that many part-time workers have been passed over for full-time jobs and management openings despite having decades of experience. Currently, she said, part-time workers outnumbered full-time workers by six to one, with more part-timers being hired at under 30 hours per week, so that they don’t qualify for health care benefits, despite the liquor commission bringing in more than $600 million in expected revenue this year.

Workers have been involuntary moved around to different locations, often away from their homes, as a punishment for speaking up about the state not adhering to the contract, Lacey said. The workers had shifts changed, were taken off overtime opportunities, and also had pay scales changed to not include time and half for Sunday hours. In some cases, in stores where full-time workers were being paid holiday pay or time and a half, the part-time workers were being paid straight time, along side the full-time employees. Changes to part-time employee’s worker relations were done “by memo,” she said.

“These employees have had rights under this contract for more than 30 years,” she said. “The commission has essentially cut these workers to the core and placed their families in harm’s way.”

The union is looking for the employees to be restored to their full and proper pay scales and for back pay to be awarded to the employees.

Currently, part-time employees earn between $11 and $12.50 an hour, depending on the scale. Full-time hourly wage employees earn between $12 and $18 an hour, according Lacey, with set workweeks and pay periods. The SEA also represents the store managers, she said.

Lacey said union officials were bewildered as to why the state would be mistreating its lowest paid workers.

“Even in the private sector, they have certain pay practices and they get better treatment than this,” she said.

Lacey also that liquor employees were “fearful” to speak up about the problems since, in January, employees were given new personnel rules informing employees that they can’t speak publicly about what is going on at the commission.

“Which is also a violation of our free speech (rights), as state employees,” Lacey said.

When asked if she knew why officials were targeting the part-time employees, Lacey said she believed it had to do with new software purchased by the state for payroll purposes and are taking the various agreements “and trying to fit them into a computer program that is tied to the fair labor standards act.” The state hasn’t always been in compliance, she said.

The commission has also been under scrutiny during recent investigations and a reorganization that changed some managers and made them answer to people who were previously subordinates, that eliminated a number of full-time positions and replaced them with part-timers, while more top executives were hired in 2009 and 2010 to run the department. Lacey alleged that the actions against workers were “retaliation” for union stewards talking about some of the contract compliances.

“The problem that we have is that it seems to be retaliatory and endorsed by the governor’s office and the attorney general, which is why we feel it’s so serious,” she said.

In the past, some public officials had suggested that the entire liquor sales process be privatized which, if it would happen, would probably force current liquor store workers or other employees to be earning less than they do working for the state. When asked if she was worried about thousands of union workers being put out of work in the wake of a potential action to privatize liquor sales, Lacey said no, since voters and elected officials had rejected privatization concepts and ideas in the past. 

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