July 28, 2023 — For about two years, PEF members at Adult Career and Continuing Education Services-Vocational Rehabilitation (ACCES-VR) offices in the State Education Department (SED) have been compelled to work unpaid overtime in order to meet unreasonable work goals and maintain compliance for the benefit of management.
According to PEF members at ACCES-VR, who work to find suitable employment for people with disabilities, SED management was made aware of the amount of overwork and instead of paying overtime to employees, management instructed employees to change their schedules or intimidated employees into not reporting their time accurately. Management also threatened to reduce or revoke telecommuting from employees.
In response, many workers have resigned, exacerbating the staffing shortage and often making the issue of unpaid overtime worse. Workers feared further retaliation for attempting to speak up about the issue. But PEF vigorously objected at Labor Management Committee meetings, repeatedly asking SED to direct people to not work overtime without compensation.
Thanks to these efforts, in May 2023, the Federal Department of Labor began an investigation to determine if SED is violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. Thereafter, on July 20, 2023, SED Deputy Commissioner Ceylane Meyers-Ruff issued a memo that reads:
“It is the policy of New York State and SED that overtime be held to a minimum. If you are in a position allocated to salary grade 22 or below, you are eligible to earn overtime.”
Overtime is classified as “non-compensatory” or “paid.” Any time recorded between 37.50 hours and 40 hours per week is considered non-compensatory. Time in excess of 40 hours is paid. Non-compensatory time is also recorded as “earned non comp” time, which allows employees to use the time for leave.
“Non-compensatory overtime in ACCES should only be approved in situations where the office staffing level requires additional work to meet defined deadlines such as Federal reporting or other regulatory or statutory requirements or in situations where specific events requiring this work fall outside of the employee’s regular schedule,” the memo reads.
In addition to eligibility, the guidelines also dictate that any overtime request must be approved by a supervisor and manager. For Paid Overtime, District Offices or ACCES Unit Managers must make the determination and fill out the appropriate forms to ensure that staff eligible for overtime are paid.
PEF members at ACCES-VR feel that this is a good start; however, they are still concerned about retaliation for being unable to manage high caseloads without adequate staffing and resources. There are reports of office managers checking in with employees at the end of the day to make sure they are shutting their computers off, or sending memos that threaten discipline if computers are not off at the end of a workday. While complying with the directives and the law are important, PEF hopes that management keeps the focus on improving working conditions, not continuing to browbeat and retaliate against employees who are doing much more with much less.
PEF members the union talked to for this story are hopeful that these guidelines will be properly implemented, and that office managers will no longer use this as a means of retaliation against employees who may be working overtime due to the short staffing conditions in order to complete their work.
If an employee is experiencing any threats of discipline, they should reach out to their shop steward or Regional Field Office immediately.
The root issue of recruiting and retaining enough employees to do the critical work of ACCES-VR must still be addressed. PEF continues to advocate and push for SED to quickly fill vacant positions and implement policies such as improved telecommuting as a recruiting and retention tool and to help employees find better work-life balance.