July 13, 2021 — The PEF Executive Board had a full agenda June 30 and July 1, selecting a 2021 Convention location, voting on policy proposals and member items and hearing from New York City mayoral candidate Eric Adams.

Convention location

As COVID restrictions are lifted, PEF is looking to hold this year’s annual Convention in person, said PEF President Wayne Spence.

“There is no reason why we should not have an in-person Convention,” he said. “Virtual should not be an option. I think we really need to consider Albany or Niagara Falls Convention Center.”

Special Events Director Kim Partridge recently learned the Niagara Falls Convention Center, which has been acting as a COVID vaccine center, would be shutting down the pandemic response at the end of July – opening it up as a potential location for PEF.

“We started looking at possible in-person options a couple weeks ago,” Partridge said. “In Albany, we were able to secure the Times Union Center, as well as hotel rooms in downtown Albany.”

The Times Union Center, a sports arena, boasts enough space to house the entire delegation, and affords extra space if there is a need for social distancing. Partridge said the hotel rates in Albany are also very good this year.

Breakout sessions would need to be held at hotels, since the arena doesn’t have adequate space for those.

Niagara Falls representatives said they could accommodate PEF. Partridge expressed concerns over hotel space, which would impact members looking for early arrival and check-in.

“One of the concerns I have is that some of the meeting rooms in Niagara Falls in a normal year can be tight for our group,” Partridge said, making social distancing a potential issue. “We may need to put a limit on attendance in breakout room sessions.”

Cost is another concern for Niagara Falls, she said.

“Right now, flights are approaching $330 roundtrip per person,” she said. PEF tries to book group space, when available, but this late in the game space hasn’t been reserved and many airlines book six months out or more.

Initially, the board voted in favor of holding the Convention at the Albany location, with members citing the power of political action with the lunchtime stroll at the 2019 Convention and the need for this in a challenging political climate.

It was soon realized that at the March meeting, the Executive Board had voted to hold the Convention in Niagara Falls or virtually – leaving no provision for selecting a third option. Failing a two-thirds vote to beat the previous decision, the Convention location was set for Niagara Falls, Oct. 24-27, 2021.

Policy on labor management agreements

Labor-management and health and safety agreements proposed at local or agency meetings with management must now receive a second review on a higher level.

“This pertains to both written and verbal agreements, or a verbal discussion,” said PEF Vice President Sharon DeSilva, while introducing the proposal. “There have been agreements, without that second review, which unfortunately resulted in a negative impact on the lives of the majority of members at those locations.”

Executive Board members supported the proposal, which began as a labor-management only policy and then morphed into a labor-management and health and safety policy, commenting that many local leaders may not realize even a conversation with management may set a precedent.

The proposal, as approved, requires any and all proposed agreements discussed at local or agency level labor-management and health and safety meetings, to be reviewed by PEF selected leaders. Additionally, the field representative and relevant PEF staff departments will be involved in reviewing agreements.

DeSilva stated that the intent of this policy is to make sure that proper review takes place when discussing agreements that may have a detrimental impact on the lives of PEF members, and to not have the responsibility of review and approval fall on just one individual.

Health and safety updates

With the expiration of the statewide emergency telecommuting agreement, health and safety precautions in the workplace are vital for PEF members returning to worksites.

PEF health and safety staff are working with the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations (GOER) to determine air filtration capabilities at state-owned and leased facilities, training PEF labor-management leaders on what to look for and discuss at the labor/management table, and creating factsheets and checklists with information for members.

“We told GOER, people are going to be afraid,” said PEF Health and Safety Director Geraldine Stella. “We don’t want to be the mask police; we don’t want to be the vaccine police. We want the state to be ready when conflicts come up.”

Vaccination is a choice and no member should be demonized by management for that choice. Employers have an obligation under PESH and OSHA to provide safe and healthy work environments and public health law says they can find out if someone is vaccinated. The state has not gone that far. The New York state guidelines released June 18 said agencies can’t require proof of vaccination, but it does allow for voluntary reporting.

“It does make sense for people to do that, it helps the union assess conditions in the workplace,” Stella said. “Masks are still an effective way to protect you and we do still encourage masking. Also realize, not everybody who is masked is unvaccinated. We are talking about how people can protect themselves in the best way possible.”

Telecommuting in the tentative agreement

Now that the Statewide Emergency Telecommuting Agreement has expired, the PEF/State Memorandum of Agreement under the 2016-2019 contract is still in effect.

“The MOA under the 2016-2019 Agreement gives agencies discretion as to whether or not to have telecommuting programs,” said Director of Contract Administration Deb Greenberg.

The tentative 2019-2023 agreement goes further, requiring agencies to develop and implement telecommuting programs within nine months of ratification and removing the four days per pay period limitation.

Information coming down from GOER has been confusing, instructing agencies that they can operate under the same provisions of the emergency agreement until the end of July, or any telecommuting agreement that was in place at each agency  prior to the pandemic. A memo from GOER also calls for all agencies to come up with telecommuting programs for implementation and approval by GOER by July 31.

“We will continue to have conversations with GOER and monitor what the agencies are doing and get to the bottom of discrepancies,” Greenberg said. “We’re in a position where we are rushing to get really good telecommuting agreements by July 31, but if we aren’t happy with an agency plan then we will work with agencies in accordance with the terms of the tentative agreement to develop and implement telecommuting programs within nine months of ratification.”

PEF is putting together a telecommuting toolkit for union leaders, said Director of Field Services Katie Vorwald. (The toolkit can now be found here.)

“Telecommuting is probably the biggest issue we hear from people,” Vorwald said. “We want to get all leaders on the same page. We have a couple of tentative agreements at smaller agencies that we can share. Even if you have a stopgap agreement through July 31, you can expand that in the future.”

GOER plans to be back to pre-pandemic office presence by Labor Day, with exceptions for telecommuting. When asked by PEF if telecommuting would be far more robust than pre-pandemic, in both amount of people and amount of days, GOER’s response was yes.

“Are they saying that to agencies? I don’t know,” Greenberg said. “We’re having labor-management teams work to develop the best telecommuting programs we can going forward, using data and experiences we have from the pandemic.”

Membership engagement, new hire orientation

Since the start of the COVID pandemic, it has been difficult for the union to engage with new hires in the PS&T unit.

“COVID has impacted this union in so many ways,” said Vice President Randi DiAntonio. “There are several areas we’ve really focused on since March 2020,  especially related to new employee orientation and access to new hires. It is a priority of this union to make sure new hires understand the value of our union and become members and a part of the fabric of this organization.”

Outreach and member engagement are ramping up as COVID restrictions recede.

“During the height of COVID, we started doing mask giveaways because the state was not providing proper PPE,” said Director of Organizing Dan Carpenter. “As the rates of positivity declined, we started doing member appreciation events. Since February, we have hit every region. We have made it a point to try and make sure we are getting out to those who have been at their worksites every day.

“We tried to focus on agencies and geographic locations that have felt forgotten over the years,” he said. “Over the last month and a half, organizing and other departments have traveled more than 10,000 miles – that’s back and forth to Washington state — three times.” In the last month, organizing hosted well over 70 events.

“When we are doing these, it’s not just about thanking our members,” Carpenter said. “We are also there to hear concerns, answer questions and reach out to those who may have been missed during COVID for new hire orientation. Inviting these folks to events has resulted in new hires signing up.”

A recent event at Stony Brook University Hospital drew in 147 nonmembers, 76 of whom signed up with PEF.

New PEF website coming soon

A robust new design for the PEF website is well on its way to completion.

Similar in look and feel to the Membership Benefits website, the new PEF.org site will be much more secure and content will be responsive – easily viewed across multiple platforms.

“It will rescale and show you content in a simple, readable format,” said Communications Director Rob Merrill, in a video introducing the Executive Board to features of the new site.

Cooperation between MIS and Communications made the long overdue update possible.

NYC mayoral candidate Eric Adams addresses board

It’s been more than 30 years since PEF has endorsed a New York City mayoral candidate, but this year the union, looking to build political power in New York City, threw its support early behind Eric Adams, a retired NYPD officer, Brooklyn Borough president and former New York State senator..

Adams is a strong advocate and community leader, speaking out for police reform and against racial discrimination. He has aligned with PEF during key campaigns, such as when the governor and the state sought to close SUNY Downstate hospital.

“It wasn’t all about jobs,” President Spence said as he introduced Adams before his address to the board. “It was about what was good for that community. Just imagine if SUNY Downstate was not around in 2020. It was the only hospital in the area that served the black and brown community.”

Adams said the people of New York City want “safe, affordable cities where we can raise healthy children and families.”

“This is a significant moment and such a victorious moment for the little people,” said Adams, who since the board meeting was held has now won the Democratic mayoral primary. “You should be really proud of yourselves because you said, ‘We are not going to go where the polls are telling us to go, we are going to go where our hearts tell us.’”

“We all want the same thing,” he said. “Our families to be safe and we want to provide a fair living wage here in the city. And I’m going to lead the way in doing so. We believe that we are going to be victorious. This is our moment to finally show our working class people can lead us out of the state of devastation we are seeing.”

President Spence said people are taking notice of PEF, with the union coming out first in support of Adams.

“We are moving,” he said. “We are doing really good things.”

Union finances, infrastructure and a fond farewell

Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie reported the union’s total income at $39.2 million as of March 31, 2021, up from $38.8 million in 2020. Total dues revenue came in at $35.9 million. Total direct services expenses were under budget by $2.8 million, given the impacts of the COVID pandemic. Total expenses for 2020-21 were $33.86 million, down from $37.1 million in 2020.

Total membership declined to 49,897 as of March 31, 2021, down from 51,928 in March 31, 2020. The drop in membership is a result of attrition, leaving vacant positions open, and lack of access to sign up new members due to COVID. Given the urgency of reversing PEF membership decreases, Wilkie emphasized the importance of PEF’s “Fund our Future: building a thriving New York” multi-year campaign and coalition, to be formally launched at the New York State Fair and at Labor Day rallies this year.

“Making the case for bolstering government in the public interest, that works for all of us, with a vibrant, unionized public workforce, has never been more critical,” she said. More information will be forthcoming this summer about how PEF members, leaders, activists and community partners can be part of the Fund our Future campaign.

PEF’s internal auditor, Mike Fratangelo, completed audits of 12 Divisions since the last Executive Board meeting, and five are underway. The total number of audited Divisions completed to date amount to 36. If feasible, he is endeavoring to complete audits of all 218 Divisions over a three-year timeframe. The internal auditor’s work can also address special projects, Regions and officers.

The headquarters renovations and IT technology and security upgrades are nearing completion.

“There is still some interior work to finish, including a mural designed by the communications team,” Wilkie said. “And we continue to await delivery of computer components, delayed due to global supply chain disruptions caused by COVID. We’re very close to the finish line.”

Total expenditures for the building and IT upgrades are estimated to come in at $3.8 million, with the project 90 percent complete.

Improvements include interior finishes, demolition, paint, mural installation, carpet, doors, new roof, HVAC, windows, masonry, plumbing, a new patio, totally renovated conference rooms, and new signage. On the IT side, there are new servers at PEF and Membership Benefits, improvements to security, hardware and software, and plans to supply all staff with laptops and docking stations.

President Spence presented Wilkie with an award commemorating her service and dedication to the union.

Wilkie’s term as Secretary-Treasurer ends on July 31, 2021, so this was her final Executive Board meeting in the position. She expressed her profound gratitude for being honored to serve PEF as Secretary-Treasurer, and for the support of PEF members, leaders and the Executive Board along the way – support that facilitated the many strategic and administrative improvements implemented with President Spence.

Board members thanked her for her years of service and expertise in guiding PEF’s financial success.

PEF Contract Chair Darlene Williams quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter’,” she said. “Kay, you have never been silent, you have always spoken your mind about the things that matter. Thank you for showing many of us that we can be strong, we can be forceful and we can do it with our heads held high.”

Others echoed her sentiments.

“Thank you for blessing our union with your financial intellect, your integrity, your vision and your organizational skills that will forever change the trajectory of our great union,” said Region 12 Coordinator Nora Higgins.

Member items propose revised election petitioning

Currently, to get on an election ballot a candidate must gather signatures amounting to 10 percent of the constituency, which some members of the Executive Board felt can be a difficult standard to reach and leads to underrepresentation on the Executive Board.

“I think we can easily reduce it to 1 percent,” said Michael Dreibelbis, who brought the member item to the board. “It doesn’t change what it takes to get elected, only what it takes to get on the ballot. I want to see a more robust election. We need to inspire more young members to come on board.”

Members in opposition of the change felt the 10 percent ensured candidates would proactively reach members outside of their worksite.

“These positions are work and what we need are people who are willing to go out and do the work to get the position,” said Joe Donahue. “These positions should be earned, not just granted.”

The board felt the reduction to 1 percent too drastic and introduced an amendment to make the requirement 5 percent. The board then voted to send the amended item to the 2021 Convention for consideration.

The next Executive Board meeting will be Aug. 26 and 27, and it will be held in person at PEF headquarters in Albany.