MSD board twice rejects plans for union workers’ salaries, benefits

District administration strongly supports plans

By Gloria Lloyd

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District Board of Trustees has twice rejected plans, strongly supported by MSD administration, that union representatives say would freeze union workers’ salaries.

In front of an audience packed with union employees, the six-member MSD board unanimously rejected a plan for salaries and benefits at its meeting last week that would take into account the results of MSD’s compensation study.

That study, finished last year, that found that the sewer district pays wages higher than the market for its union employees. In a statement to the board before the vote, MSD Executive Director Brian Hoelscher urged the board to vote for the compensation study and said MSD administrators strongly support implementing it.

To lead union negotiator Mike Murphy of Service Employees International Union Local 1, downgrading the salaries of current employees would be bad for morale — and therefore bad for the operations of the sewer district.

“A lot of these employees have been with the district for years. To now come in and say, ‘Oh, your position isn’t really worth what they’ve been paying you …’ That’s what they’re doing, and that’s just plain wrong,” he told the board before the vote. “People come to work, and they give their all. They’re going to see that the district doesn’t value them like they have in the past.”

MSD union employees have worked without a new contract since last July. Murphy said negotiations between MSD staff and the unions have gone back and forth during that time, but the two sides have now reached an agreement that union leaders support and that employees will vote for or against on Wednesday.

Under to the compensation study, MSD will consider realigning salaries when they are 15 percent above or below the range for comparable salaries in the market, which is the case with the minimum starting salary for the sewer district’s pay schedule that governs union jobs. Senior and heavy equipment operators are paid 18.1 percent and 21.1 percent above the market rate, respectively, and construction laborers are paid 24.7 percent above the market rate, according to the study results.

Although Hoelscher said in December that he and MSD administrators believe that union representatives agreed to the changes, union representatives disagreed, and board member James Faul of St. Louis told the Call that is why he voted against the changes.

“We wanted to uphold the contract,” Faul said. “We thought that, you know, there’s an agreement made, and I thought that a ‘no’ vote reflected the agreement that we had reached (with the union).”

At the urging of union representatives, in December the MSD board also unanimously rejected a compensation plan recommended by MSD administrators that would have affected overtime and reclassified the positions of some of the district’s union employees, including engineers, machinists, bricklayers and electricians.

Faul is a union attorney who joined the board last year, appointed by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. Vice Chair Michael Yates, appointed by County Executive Charlie Dooley in 2011, is a union representative and a past president of Operating Engineers Local 148. Yates’s term is up this March, and anyone interested can apply to Dooley for the position.

“As a government entity, MSD is keenly aware of the financial pressures on and public expectations for public agencies.  Accordingly, MSD — like any public agency — must be a responsible steward of the public’s money,” MSD Public Information Manager Lance LeComb said. “At the same time, we recognize the need to adequately compensate employees. Our goal throughout these negotiations has been to achieve a fair balance between those two values and achieve an agreement that is cognizant of both those pressures.”

In Murphy’s view, the contract proposals by MSD administrators would freeze pay increases, lower pay grades, add more steps before union employees could reach the top of the pay scale, predicate those steps on performance evaluations, increase co-payments for health insurance premiums and allow employees whose positions are covered by unions to opt out of paying union dues.

Employees have overwhelmingly rejected MSD’s proposals twice since last summer for all those reasons, Murphy said. In each vote, five people approved the plan and 90 to 100 voted against it, he added.

Besides SEIU Local 1, the other union in negotiations with MSD is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, Local 410, based in Jefferson City.

Just before the December vote on the union agreement, MSD Director of Operations Jonathon Sprague presented the district’s quarterly regulatory compliance report, which improved from the previous quarter, when the region faced heavy rainfall.

“The union supports our brothers and sisters in other trades in the fight against red-lining the grades and freezing their wages or giving them a lump-sum bonus that does not count toward their pension,” Murphy told the board before that vote. “These are the same employees that gave you the great numbers that were presented by Jonathon Sprague. And you know, they work hard, they do a good job, and to reward them with having their grades lowered and their pay frozen is wrong.”

The recommended changes were based on a compensation study that MSD conducts every decade to ensure that its employees are paid prevailing wages, Murphy said. Its 2012 study was published last February and was the first MSD had conducted since 2000.

In January, Murphy invited board members to sit in on negotiations, but board Chairman James Buford reminded Murphy that negotiations are intended for MSD staff and the unions.

“I appreciate the invitation, but I think it’s incumbent upon you guys to really work with the staff to get an agreement,” Buford said.