The V.I. Office of Collective Bargaining requested a modest fiscal year 2013 budget of $609,317 Friday at Senate Finance Committee budget hearings in Frederiksted. The amount marks a 4.86 percent decrease over fiscal year 2012’s budget.
The office’s responsibilities make it the exclusive representative for the executive branch and its departments and agencies in all collective bargaining proceedings.
“As in recent fiscal years, this past fiscal year has been challenging for the office, as it has been for many other agencies within the executive branch,” said Chief Negotiator Valdemar Hill, Jr. “Nonetheless, it is our belief that the proposed budget for the Office of Collective Bargaining, while conservative, is representative of the office’s mission and responsibility, and reflects the current financial condition of the government.”
Hill stated his office had successes in fiscal year 2012 despite the financial woes of the government. He said negotiations with the Virgin Islands State Nurses Association concluded in June with an agreed upon wage package and that negotiation with the Workers Union – Head Start and VITRAN – ended with the agreement to postpone wage talks until September 2014. He added negotiations with the following unions have started but not yet concluded; Seafarer’s International Union, Emergency Room Physicians, Public Health Physicians, Public Health Dentists, Assistant Attorneys General, and the Virgin Islands National Guard.
“It is the intent of the Office of Collective Bargaining to bargain in a manner consistent with the recognition of the financial needs of the employees, and at the same time being cognizant of the adverse economic conditions of the government,” Hill said. “We will seek to find common ground that will help to bring balance to the relationship between labor and management.”
One aspect of Hill’s testimony Sen. Sammuel Sanes enquired about involved the 128 back-logged cases of the agency, 59 of which were pending resolution via arbitration, 28 that were unfair practice charges pending resolution before the Public Employees Relations Board and 22 that were tied up in the court system. In discussing the agreement reached earlier this week between Juan F. Luis Hospital and the more than 80 certified nursing assistants that were all let go earlier this year, Sanes wondered out loud if the hospital tapped into the office’s mind at all during negotiations.
“That is privileged information. I can’t disclose that,” said Assistant Attorney General for Labor Robert Molloy.
Sanes backtracked, adding, “For the record, other entities in the past have tapped into your resources?”
Molloy said, “Yes, as a matter of fact our office encourages other agencies to consult with the Office of Collective Bargaining when they come across legal issues arising in the collective bargaining agreements, yes.”
This led Sanes to ask whether Molloy or Hill saw any light at the end of the tunnel regarding the outstanding cases.
“There is always light at the end of the tunnel,” Hill said. “But sometimes the tunnel is very, very long.”
Hill added in his testimony that representing the government effectively will depend on the education of and orientation of its supervisors, managers and department heads on sound employment and labor practices, grievances handling and contract administration.
After a morning budget hearing that saw the Bureau of Corrections come under extreme criticism from many senators, Sen. Nereida "Nellie" O'Reilly asked, “Would you consider visiting their HR person and their supervisors and offering some training because there appears to be some issues with their employee morale and there are changes happening in the institution that I perceive from the hearing should be addressed.”
“In my mind morale is a function of relationships,” Hill said. “If the relationships aren’t right then you’re likely to have low morale.”
Hill concluded his testimony saying his office would adhere to the austerity measures put in place by the government and would do its part by making a concerted effort to decrease spending, conserve energy, reduce travel and minimize the use of supplies.