The city of Santa Fe violated labor law during negotiations with a union that resulted in hundreds of employee furloughs, the Public Employees Labor Relations Board ruled Friday.
The city “breached its obligation to bargain in good faith by unilaterally implementing a furlough plan in response to a public health emergency declared after an outbreak of COVID-19 in New Mexico,” the labor board ruling said.
The ruling also states the city failed to provide relevant financial information to the union during furlough negotiations.
Local union leaders saw the ruling as a victory but said they were disappointed the labor board declined to issue financial damages for furloughed employees.
Gilbert Baca, president of the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, argued that the lowest-paid city employees have disproportionately suffered financial hardship from furloughs.
“It was a big hit for lower-paid people,” Baca said. “A lot of them couldn’t pay their rent — and they can’t get evicted right now, but what happens when” evictions return?
Baca said the lowest-paid employees lost 40 percent of their income because of the furloughs, while the highest-paid civil servants lost roughly 10 percent of their income.
Kristine Mihelcic, Santa Fe’s constituent and council services director, said the ruling supports the city’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, and added that it was within its rights to shorten a 28-day notification requirement related to furloughs.
“The City of Santa Fe considers this to be an overall confirmation of its decisions and actions regarding the furloughs that were required as a result of the COVID-19 health emergency and the fiscal crisis that followed. The Director of the Public Employee Labor Relations Board found the actions of the City to be correct overall,” Mihelcic said in a statement.
She acknowledged that the city should have offered more detailed information during its furlough negotiations but called it a “minor violation” and stressed the board found no evidence to award financial damages because the furloughs were within the city’s management rights.
“Overall the decision recognizes the emergency situation the City found itself in and validates the furloughs that were implemented as a solution that was within management’s rights,” she said.
After a public health emergency was declared, Santa Fe was required to shut down nonessential services and was grappling with a projected $100 million deficit as a result of the hit to gross receipts tax revenue. To make up for the shortfall, the city instituted furloughs and layoffs.
The city approved a plan in April to impose furloughs of four hours a week on 868 employees and 16 hours a week on 180 others for the rest of the fiscal year. The furloughs were expected to save the city $1.43 million.
Other concerns from AFSCME were dismissed by the labor board. For example, the board did not grant a request to issue monetary compensation for furloughed employees and others who AFSCME leaders claim the city human resources director said would qualify for boosted $600 unemployment benefits temporarily approved by Congress for months.
Despite the city’s assurances, many employees ended up not qualifying for those benefits, said Chris Armijo, an organizer for AFSCME.
Armijo said it’s unfortunate the board did not grant monetary awards because not qualifying for expanded unemployment benefits has resulted in real financial hardship for city employees.
“It’s been a struggle with the city of Santa Fe to try to get information from them so we can properly … uphold our contract,” Armijo added.