Miami-Dade still paying full salaries as union contract delays continue
By Risa Polansky
Miami-Dade has yet to settle employee union contracts — and each day those remain unresolved could bring deeper salary cuts or more layoffs.
Commissioners balanced the county's $7.4 billion budget last month in part through nearly $200 million in planned salary reductions and benefits cuts, on top of laying off 669 employees.
The layoffs began last week.
But the county can't start cutting salaries until it cements collective bargaining agreements with its unions — meaning staffers continue to collect last year's full pay in the meantime.
The budget calls for saving $106 million through salary cuts.
But the more time that passes before settling with the unions, the more the county will need to cut to keep the budget balanced.
"If we put this off, if we don't start just getting with this, we're talking about laying off [more] people… It has to be done, or more people are going to suffer," Katy Sorenson, chair of the county's Budget, Planning and Sustainability Committee, stressed at a commission meeting Tuesday.
Mayor Carlos Alvarez said the same, pointing out that including planned benefit and bonus reductions on top of pay cuts brings the oft-cited $106 million to nearly $200 million.
"And the longer we get into the current budget, the more difficult it's going to be," he said.
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez attempted to get the ball rolling Tuesday, proposing pay cuts for employees who aren't covered by collective bargaining units.
Commissioners shot down the legislation 8-4 with no discussion, customary for initial votes.
They plan to settle at least some union contracts before touching non-union employees' pay and benefits.
Had Mr. Gimenez's measure passed, it would have cut pay 15% for those non-union employees earning more than $250,000, 10% for those making $150,000 to $250,000, and 7.5% for those making $100,000 to $150,000.
Only 4,175 of the county's 33,456 employees are non-union.
Mr. Gimenez said in an interview his point was not how many people the reductions would have affected.
"This is not a question of the number — it's just a question of these are the exempt, higher-paid employees."
He was aware of some officials' preference to hold off on cuts until union contracts are final, but "my logic is we need to start to restructure the pay scale in Miami-Dade County now," Mr. Gimenez said. "The sooner the better."
Most commissioners resisted.
Also on Tuesday, three unions were to come before the commission to settle on agreements but asked to defer until the next regular meeting Oct. 20.
County Manager George Burgess said "we scheduled for today because time is money."
But the unions need more time, representative Alma Gonzalez told commissioners.
"We're a big boat — we don't turn on a dime."
The delay leaves most employees unsure about their income and job security.
Mr. Burgess last week sent memos meant to address concerns.
"It is important to begin planning now for the potential change to your income, even though the exact impact and timing is still undetermined," he wrote to employees Sept. 30. "It is also important to understand the way this situation changes as the year progresses: in order to achieve the full $106 million in savings, salary reductions approved later this fall could very well be made retroactive to September 21 2009, which was the first day of the last pay period of FY 2008-09. I want to reinforce that no decisions have been made on whether the pay cuts will be retroactive, or, if so, how that would be handled. It is simply important to be aware of these facts and begin preparing for different possible outcomes."
Oct.1, he sent a letter to department directors offering direction on how to handle the gray area.
"Virtually all employees are struggling with the uncertainty of how budget reductions will impact their income," Mr. Burgess wrote. "You and your management team will be dealing with circumstances that can take a toll both professionally and personally."
The county's "FY 2009-10 Department Director Communications Fact Sheet" advises leaders to "Communicate, communicate, communicate! (Explain what we know, admit what we do not know; but communicate nonetheless)."
The county distributed pink slips last and this week.
Any laid off employee will still be able to apply for a county-employees-only job for the next two years.
And the county is partnering with United Way and South Florida Workforce "to provide assistance for affected employees," the memo says.
But if the commission doesn't settle with the unions soon — or, if commissioners reverse course from the approved budget and agree to smaller wage cuts — more layoffs could be on the way.
"We've got to stick to our guns," Commission Chair Dennis Moss said Tuesday. "You either do the cuts or you let folks go."