The two agencies tasked with keeping relations between government employees and the government fair and civil may be merged soon, if suggestions made Friday at the Senate Finance Committee are acted on.
No objections were made when committee chairman Kurt Vialet suggested that the V.I. Labor Management Committee be put under the the Public Employees Relations Board. Vialet noted that such a merger would allow the government to quit renting separate office space for the Labor Management Committee which currently has only one employee.
When Executive Director Aubrey Lee gave the budget presentation for the Management Committee and was asked whether such a merger was a good idea, he answered, “It would be an improvement.”
Lee also serves on the PERB board.
The immediate problem for PERB, however, is how to get its decisions finalized and its orders executed.
When Pierina Jacobs-Feldman, chairman of the PERB, made her budget request of $1.3 million she mentioned that PERB was in compliance with the strictures concerning the Virgin Islands being in a state of emergency. These strictures do not allow the PERB to finalize any of its recommendations.
What this means, for example, is, if an employee brought a case to PERB saying that he or she had been wrongfully discharged, a hearing examiner could gather evidence, hold hearings and recommend the employee be re-instated. However, because of the declaration of an emergency, that recommendation cannot be taken up by the board where a decision can be finalized and sent to the governor for action. Instead the employee would remain sitting at home until the state of emergency is over, not collecting any money, but probably accruing back pay for which the department would be responsible.
Last fiscal year, 51 cases were filed with PERB last fiscal year, of those, 33 have been closed. PERB has 133 cases pending, including cases from previous years and, according to testimony, PERB likes to keep that below 100.
Zandra Petersen, executive director and certified hearing officer to the PERB, told the senators gathering of evidence and hearings were continuing and the PERB was eager to get back on track with decisions being implemented. So much so, PERB had its legal counsel send a letter to the governor to excuse the board from the strictures of the emergency declaration.
Vialet asked whether the governor had the legal ability to do that. After discussion with the PERB attorney and the legislature attorney, it remained uncertain whether the governor had that power.
When PERB’s decisions are appealed, PERB’s legal counsel defends the decision. Currently, PERB is a party to 34 cases pending in the courts – 33 in Superior Court and one in District Court.
PERB’s budget request was broken down as follows:
– $654,000 for personnel services;
– $286,269 for fringe benefits;
– $25,000 for office and operating supplies;
– $338,721for other services, rentals, and communication costs;
– $11,000 will cover the cost of utilities.
The budget calls for 12 full-time positions; nine on St. Croix and three on St. Thomas.
“The PERB is the primary recourse for government employees and
managers; including, the independent instrumentalities such as, the V.I. Water And Power Authority, V. I. Port Authority, and the hospitals, to address labor related matters,” Jacobs-Feldman said.
Labor Management Committee, according to Lee’s testimony, promotes and prepares for rank-and- file employee involvement in the decision- making process with management, addressing the employment environment in the work place.
“Managing employee issues can help managers and supervisors to correct inappropriate behavior, as well as to promote an effective structural and productive workplace,” Lee said.
Joseph A. Gumbs, former vice chair of the Labor Management Committee, made the official budget request of $175,000 for the Management Committee.
Sens. Vialet and Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly both suggested that there be more rotation on people in the agencies. O’Reilly was specific in her comment to Lee, who had trouble with his microphone during his testimony. She said, “If you can’t hold your own microphone isn’t it time to consider retirement/”
On the other hand, senators praised Petersen for earning the James M. Roche “spirit of volunteerism award” presented to her last month.
Senators also had questions about a credit card the Labor Management Board uses. The answers they received were unsatisfactory to them and they asked for a full accounting of the card’s use be delivered to them.