Christine Stuart file photo
Workers at a labor rally last week at the Legislative Office Building (Christine Stuart file photo)

Connecticut’s state employee unions are not happy that the Malloy administration has outsourced some of the negotiations over wages and working conditions, but the administration says it’s short-staffed and is using them sparingly.

The Office of Policy and Management contracted with two law firms — Berchem, Moses and Devlin of Milford, and Pullman and Comley of Hartford — to help it negotiate 14 union contracts. The cap on each contract is $400,000. That means the most the state plans to spend on negotiating with the unions is $800,000.

Lisa Grasso Egan, the current Undersecretary for Labor Relations, was a senior partner at Berchem, Moses and Devlin before being appointed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in January 2015.

Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes said they contracted with the firms because they “didn’t want to be caught without the ability to cover everything.” He said he doesn’t expect the state to reach the cap.

He said the lawyers are handling grievance hearings and doing research in some cases. He said there are times where the outside attorney will take the lead and Barnes’ staff in the Office of Labor Relations will be the second chair.

But labor unions don’t understand why spending money on outside attorneys is even necessary.

“For five months of negotiations we’ve been sitting across the table from an outside attorney with a $400,000 contract,” John DiSette, president of the Administrative & Residual Employees Union, AFT Local 4200, said. “Sitting next to him has been the Office of Labor Relations’ assistant director, who has has successfully negotiated past agreements with our union without the added expense of outside counsel. This is clearly an unnecessary cost that has been added to the process by the governor’s administration.”

DiSette represents about 3,300 non-managerial professionals including accountants, fiscal workers, tax collectors, bank examiners, inspectors, attorneys, and their supervisors.

State employees, who have declined to reopen their contract for health and pension benefits, believe there are better ways for the state to be spending its money.

“When we say there is room to trim expenses within the current operations and there are better choices than painful service cuts or state employee layoffs, this is just one $400,000 example — and an easy place to start,” DiSette said.

Paul Lavallee, the president of AFSCME 4 Local 2663, said one of their main concerns back in 2011 was if they gave up $1.6 billion in concessions that there was going to be a transformation in government.

Lavallee and other members of the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition have complained that the state hasn’t fully implemented the 2011 contract and if they had, they could find additional savings.

In the meantime, he said they could hire a lot of state employees for $400,000 and avoid paying outside contractors. Aside from being short-staffed, as Barnes’ said, the Office of Labor Relations also took a $325,000 hit recently when it settled a labor dispute with its former director, Linda Yelmini. Her position was eliminated in a one-person “reorganization” of the office.

Her civil service job was changed to allow the governor to fill it in January 2015 with a political appointee — Lisa Grasso Egan — who now has the same duties of negotiating for the state administration with public employee unions.

Lavallee also noted that the state lost a great deal of institutional memory in the Office of Labor Relations with Yelmini’s removal. Meanwhile, Barnes and members of his staff met last week with members of the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition. Neither Barnes nor the unions would share what was discussed behind closed doors, and there are no future meetings scheduled.

Larry Dorman, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 4, said there are better choices to make instead of layoffs. Reducing the use of “runaway contractors and overtime” is a good start, he added.

Lavallee said the Correction Department has managed to cut down on overtime by hiring more people, which lowered the amount they were spending.

However, the administration is wary that hiring more state employees will help resolve the larger problem, which is the state’s ballooning pension payment. Malloy and two constitutional officers have made proposals for ways to improve the state’s pension system, but lawmakers have been slow to embrace any of their plans as the legislative session speeds to a May 4 adjournment.

Barnes said he doesn’t believe any of the wage and working conditions agreements will be finished in time for lawmakers to vote on them before the session adjourns. The contracts, which expire on June 30, will be considered by the legislature when they reconvene next year after the election.