The Chief
November 2, 2007

PBA, City Gear For Arbitration In Pay Dispute

Recruitment, Retention Woes vs. Concerns About Parity

By REUVEN BLAU

After close to three years of sporadic and fruitless negotiations, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association's contentious contract dispute with the Bloomberg administration is finally headed towards a resolution, with arbitration hearings set to begin next week.

RAYMOND W. KELLY: Caught in the middle.
RAYMOND W. KELLY: Caught in the middle.

The PBA is facing the challenging task of trying to break an existing uniformed wage pattern by convincing the three-person arbitration panel to dramatically transform how cops are compensated to make their pay competitive with that of officers in Long Island and at the Port Authority.

City negotiators, however, have maintained that since 1898 there has been salary parity between Police Officers and Firefighters.

Invokes 'Parity Wars'

Labor Relations Commissioner James F. Hanley has also repeatedly contended that without the pattern bargaining component of the collective-bargaining process there would be chaos, just as there was during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period of negotiations he has referred to as "the parity wars."

 

READY TO MAKE THEIR CASES: Labor Commissioner Jim Hanley (left) will emphasize the importance of maintaining longtime pay relationships for various groups of uniformed employees when the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association contract arbitration begins next week. In contrast, PBA President Pat Lynch will argue that there is a shortage of cops because that salary parity has placed the NYPD well behind 'virtually every law-enforcement agency within an hour's drive of the city.'
READY TO MAKE THEIR CASES: Labor Commissioner Jim Hanley (left) will emphasize the importance of maintaining longtime pay relationships for various groups of uniformed employees when the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association contract arbitration begins next week. In contrast, PBA President Pat Lynch will argue that there is a shortage of cops because that salary parity has placed the NYPD well behind 'virtually every law-enforcement agency within an hour's drive of the city.'

But PBA President Patrick J. Lynch has questioned the legality of pattern bargaining, which he has pointed out is not mentioned in the state's Taylor Law.

The union will likely have a difficult time persuading Susan T. McKenzie, who is chairing the Public Employment Relations Board panel, several labor officials and insiders said last week.

"Always with the PBA contract, the issue is linkage to the other contracts," said George Arzt, the former Press Secretary to Mayor Koch who's now a political consultant.

Recruitment Issue

While the arbitration process has lumbered forward at a glacial pace, both sides have taken the time to affirm their positions, with the city negotiating new contracts for practically all of its other uniformed unions and the PBA highlighting the NYPD's continued recruitment struggles.

The city has continually prodded the PBA to agree to similar financial terms to what it reached with unions representing higher NYPD ranks.

Mayor Bloomberg has long maintained that the wage model for uniformed employees was set for the round of bargaining at issue in the PBA dispute in the fall of 2005 by the UFA's 50-month deal, which provided raises of 3 percent and 3.15 percent in its last 26 months.

City negotiators have also pointed out that if the PBA were to agree to the same 24 percent in raises that the Sergeants Benevolent Association negotiated in July, by the end of a six-year deal maximum salary for city cops would be about $74,000, blunting the union's contention that there is a need to structurally change how cops are compensated based on other jurisdictions.

Kelly Stewing

The protracted contract battle has frustrated everyone involved, especially Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. The NYPD has had a difficult time attracting new officers under the drastically reduced starting salary of $25,100 for officers during their first six months on the job.

Mr. Kelly has called the current pay structure "bizarre" and has labeled the low starting salary a "disgrace" in the past.

The department is currently 2,800 officers short of its projected hiring goals. In addition, the NYPD expects to appoint fewer than 800 recruits for its next Academy class set to start training in January.

"The NYPD faces a critical retention and recruitment problem today," said PBA President Patrick J. Lynch in a lengthy statement issued last week. "No other uniformed force is losing veteran members or is suffering from a lack of qualified candidates like the Police Department."

Contract With Sanit, Fire

The PBA president pointed out that more than 34,000 individuals recently took the exam leading to Sanitation Worker jobs and that the Fire Department has never had a difficult time garnering interest.

"But clearly people who have a passion for law-enforcement are going elsewhere," Mr. Lynch contended. "And the shortage of good, qualified recruits is only worsened by the exodus of nearly 1,000 of our fully trained and experienced officers who quit each year for better-paying jobs."

A key issue that will be discussed over the next several months is the length of the award, which likely will not be issued until next spring, if not later.

It remains unclear whether the PBA would agree to a contract award longer than the mandated two-year period under state labor law. City negotiators have proposed extending the length of the potential award, but the PBA - which must approve for the arbitrators to consider the idea - declined the offer, according to Mr. Hanley.

Police Officers have been working under a contract that expired Aug. 1, 2004, meaning a potential two-year award would already be out of date.

'Dysfunctional Approach'

"The advantage to extend it is to bring the parties to a contemporaneous position, so they don't have to go back all over again," said Eric J. Schmertz, who was the chair of the 2005 PBA arbitration panel. "It is dysfunctional to go through a very lengthy, expensive arbitration to cover a period of time that is already expired."

Extended contracts, he continued, give the parties more "elbow room to do things in terms of wages, but also productivity and adjustment of wages that may or may not save some money."

Mr. Arzt said that politics may play a role as well. "Both sides could negotiate on the time that they want," he remarked. "But the clock is running down on the Bloomberg administration, and I think that the PBA's view is that any of the people involved in the mayoral race would probably be more favorable than in the Bloomberg administration, so they would probably only want two years."

To Cite Nurses' Case

At the arbitration hearing scheduled to start Nov. 6, the PBA is also expected to cite a past deviation from pattern bargaining to solve a nursing shortage to try to convince Ms. McKenzie to change how the city pays its police officers.

Commissioner Hanley, however, has steadfastly maintained that comparing the current NYPD recruitment struggles to the Nurse shortage during the late 1980s is an "irresponsible" association.

During the round of bargaining that covered 1987 to 1990, in order to help attract more Nurses, Mayor Ed Koch's administration significantly changed how it paid them by reinstating a parity clause that exceeded the wage pattern applied to the other unions.

Over the past 15 years, the PBA has unsuccessfully attempted to convince arbitrators that the NYPD's recruitment struggles were analogous to the Nurse shortage. Prior arbitrators rejected that connection, ruling that the longstanding tradition of salary parity between cops and firefighters must be maintained in order to avert serious financial complications for the city.

"I just don't believe that PERB would be that insensitive to city needs and the city economy," Mr. Arzt said.

Shortage Aids PBA

The NYPD is also struggling to retain officers, which the PBA is hoping to use to its advantage. The current Police Academy class, which began short, has suffered an unusually high attrition rate, with 18 percent of the 924 rookies who began training in July having already dropped out by mid-September.

"The shortage of good, qualified recruits is only worsened by the exodus of nearly 1,000 of our fully trained and experienced officers who quit each year for better paying jobs," Mr. Lynch said. "The reason for that is that virtually every law-enforcement agency within an hour's drive of the city is paying their officers a basic max pay between $75,000 and $100,000, which dwarfs the NYPD's basic max of $59,588 that is fueling the NYPD's unprecedented staffing crisis."

The city's projected fiscal situation will be a factor, which could hurt the PBA's chances of breaking parity, Mr. Arzt said.

"I think on economics, the arbitration is taking place at a tough time, because of a slowdown in the economy, although it hasn't hit us yet," he remarked. "The volatility of the stock market is certainly an indication of how fragile the city and national economy are. It's certainly going to play a role."

Mr. Lynch, however, noted that even places like Elizabeth and Newark, N.J. are paying their officers a maximum salary of more than $75,000, despite having significantly lower income and dramatically lower real property values than New York City.

Rookie Boost Rebuffed

"It defies imagination to suggest that New York City, the financial capital of the world, can't afford to pay its police officers the competitive salary that is mandated by the Taylor Law," he added.

While the Bloomberg administration, responding to Commissioner Kelly's complaints about the drastic effect of the starting salary on recruitment, has sought to significantly upgrade the minimum pay, it has been unable to persuade the PBA to reach contract terms.

Mr. Lynch has objected that the city's offer to increase starting pay has been tied to a demand that the rookies give up other benefits to offset the costs. The union president also has maintained that an unusually high attrition rate among experienced officers will not be stemmed unless the city significantly improves maximum pay to make it competitive with what cops in neighboring suburbs are receiving.

According to the PBA, 902 cops left the department in 2006 before working the five years required for a pension to vest. By comparison, 159 such officers quit in 1991, the union said.

The NYPD's overall attrition rate last year was more than 8 percent. In all, 3,353 left the NYPD in calendar year 2006, according to the department. Of those officers, 891 resigned, 20 were fired and the others retired, based on NYPD figures.

"Free night-sights and tuition repayment assistance are not going to solve the NYPD's staffing crisis," Mr. Lynch said. "And simply increasing starting pay won't either. Only a competitive market rate of pay will keep experienced police officers patrolling our city's streets while attracting adequate numbers of qualified people to join the force."

'PBA Painted Into Corner'

While the stakes for both sides have risen, the arguments from city and the PBA will likely sound very familiar to those made during the contract arbitration hearings in 2002 and 2005, Mr. Schmertz and others said.

City negotiators, however, plan to emphasize the other extended uniformed deals already in place. Deviating from those pattern-setting agreements could create major financial problems, since those groups all have re-opener clauses should the PBA somehow convince the arbitrators to break the pattern.

"I just think the PBA has painted themselves in such a tiny corner that they can't even step on the lines," said one uniformed union official.