A divided Appropriations Committee will send an unfavorable report to the Senate and a favorable report to the House on a five-year labor contract for University of Connecticut employees.
The Senators on the committee voted 6-6 and the House members voted 24-19 after a two-hour public hearing on the contract. The vote was mostly symbolic since the Senate and House still have 30 days to formally accept or reject the contract. The contract will automatically go into effect if neither chamber takes it up for a vote.
It’s the first of many contracts the General Assembly will have to deal with this year and lawmakers struggled with approving an increase in pay for about 1,900 UConn employees at a time when the state is facing a nearly $570 million deficit.
“I’m starting to feel like it’s like peeling back the layers of an onion and it’s starting to smell,” Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, said.
The sentiment was shared by several lawmakers who were confused about how the university was going to fund the increase at a time when it’s already $38 million over its budget.
Lawmakers were concerned the increase would be passed along in the form of a tuition increase to students, who are already facing a 31 percent tuition increase over four years.
Scott Jordan, executive vice president of administration and chief financial officer, told the committee he’s not sure where the money will come from just yet, but it won’t be from tuition increases.
Jordan said the five-year contract negotiated with the University of Connecticut Professional Employees Association allows the administration to layoff employees, but it also gives them more tools to manage the employees and increases the number of hours the employees are required to work from 35 hours per week to 40 hours per week.
“We assume if people are working longer hours we can hire fewer of them,” Jordan said.
The contract will cost the state $33.9 million over five years, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis. The University of Connecticut estimated it was worth $24.4 million. Under the contract, employees would get a 2 percent pay increase and 1 percent merit increase in 2017, and 4.5 percent pay and merit increase in each of the following four years. The current contract expires in June.
Kathleen Sanner, president of the University of Connecticut Professional Employees Association, said the contract will increase productivity.
She used the health services department as an example. She said working an extra hour per day will allow nurses to see perhaps three more patients per day.
“It does cut down the waiting time for our patients for appointments,” Sanner said.
But lawmakers were still skeptical.
The Appropriations Committee spent several days listening to public testimony regarding the impact of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s $570 million in spending cuts, including reducing burial costs for indigent and college scholarships.
“What is the perception we’re giving to the people of Connecticut right now when we do this?” Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, said. “People are taking home less money, right? They’re struggling to live within their means.”
Kane said the legislature needs to take a “good hard second look at this agreement.”
However, Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, doubted that Democratic leadership would bring it to a vote in either chamber.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said she didn’t know walking into the hearing Tuesday which way she would vote on the contract. However, she didn’t believe the state would do better if it sent the contract to arbitration.
“Arbitration is not a safe bet,” Bye said. “If this gets voted down today and this contract goes to arbitration, I believe the outcome would be worse.”
She said the last time the legislature voted down a contract the arbitrator sided with the unions and awarded 6.2 percent and 5.3 percent wage increases with no increase in hours for that union.
Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, said she has several questions she doesn’t believe have been answered and reserves her right to change her vote if the resolution is raised in the Senate. She wants assurances the students won’t be paying for the contract through tuition increases.
“I don’t want to approve this and then have it fall on the backs of our students,” Slossberg said.
She said she’s had some assurances, but UConn doesn’t even know what it’s budget is going to look like at the moment.
Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, said all she can base her vote on Tuesday is the numbers and “they do not add up.”