As reported by N.J.com, public employee unions and government officials clashed Monday in a case before the state Supreme Court that could determine whether workers across New Jersey will get pay raises.
The state’s highest court heard oral arguments over the whether “step” increases — increases in pay when workers reach annual milestones in years of service — should be granted after a contract has expired.
Atlantic County, Bridgewater Township and the Public Employment Relations Commission asked the court to reverse an appellate court ruling, which found PERC overstepped its authority when it upended a four-decades-old doctrine that says step increases outlive the term of a contract.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 34 and Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 77 charged Atlantic County with unfair labor practices, alleging the county violated that “dynamic status quo” doctrine during contract negotiations and arbitration.
Police officers who were not yet at the top of the pay scale were due 5 percent or 6 percent step increases.
PERC dismissed the unions’ charges, rejecting a policy it said no longer reflected the economic landscape or the challenges local governments face in complying with state-imposed 2 percent caps on tax levy hikes.
The appellate court said, “Concerns regarding budgets are not a primary consideration when the agency safeguards the rights of public employees,” and that “PERC’s abandonment of the dynamic status quo doctrine was action outside the scope of its legislative mandate.”
That panel also slapped PERC in a dispute out of Bridgewater in which it deemed automatic salary increases during a lapse in contracts could no longer be negotiated or arbitrated.
The dynamic status quo doctrine has been applied to step increases since 1975. PERC said it created a level playing field for negotiations.
Now, said David Rapuano, who argued against the automatic step increases, the doctrine has an effect opposite to the one intended: contract negotiations are more difficult and unions have a disincentive to quickly settle labor disputes.
A passage in the contracts that reads “All provisions of this agreement will continue in effect until a successor agreement is negotiated,” proved a sticking point for the justices.
Rapuano said PERC didn’t recognize that any language in the contracts that would require increment payments after they expired.
Justices Barry Albin and Jaynee LaVecchia questioned PERC’s decision to apply the policy reversal to contracts that were already negotiated and implemented.
PERC’s decision altered the playing ground of negotiations “suddenly and unexpectedly after 40 years,” LaVecchia said. “Doesn’t that deserve prospective notice to parties?”
Rapuano argued PERC’s reversal did not upset any existing contracts, rather it changed the period after a contract runs out.
In effect, LaVecchia asked, hasn’t “PERC has become a player, a thumb on the scale” in contract negotiations?
“Actually no. I think it finally took its hand off the negotiations. I think the dynamic status quo was the thumb.”
State employees lodged a similar complaint against Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, which similarly froze salaries for tens of thousands of workers whose contracts expired.
A union win in this case would affect every state and local public employee in New Jersey, said Ira Mintz, who represented the police unions before the court.
Patrick Colligan, president of the state Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said “If (the justices) follow all the case law and all the labor law and all the PERC decisions from the past 40 years, they will make a decision that is favorable to us,” he said.