Opinion: County contracts with union paid leave cost taxpayers

Prince George’s County Council is considering approval of a union contract covering firefighters and paramedics. But legal developments around the country should give council members pause about rubberstamping the contract as is.

In Arizona, Pennsylvania and Idaho, lawsuits against a government union contract provision—that appears in numerous Maryland public-sector union contracts including nearly all of Prince George’s County’s—are underway. Under legal scrutiny is a provision that permits public employees to perform union business that does not serve a public purpose on the taxpayer dime.

For instance, the Prince George’s County union contract awaiting County Council approval grants the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1619 576 hours to attend union conferences and seminars. Additionally, a bank of leave allows for 1500 more hours to conduct unidentified union business instead of public services. All of this is afforded to the union without loss of pay. So instead of fighting fires or paramedics saving lives, they conduct union business.

On top of the over two thousand hours of union business leave, the IAFF union president and one other person are placed on administrative leave with pay to perform union duties.

Hard to calculate costs

Without knowing the specific employee taking union business leave, it is impossible to calculate the exact cost. However, it is safe to assume the two individuals on administrative leave earn a salary near, or at, the top pay scale of “Battalion Chief,” which ranges from $62,237 to $137,824 (this does not include the cost of benefits which are also costly). So it is easy to assume, union business leave that just covers firefighters and medics costs Prince George’s County hundreds of thousands of dollars where the public receives nothing in return.

Further, almost all of the collective bargaining agreements that Prince George’s County has entered into with government unions, include union business leave at similar levels of the fire fighter contract. It is not beyond the pale to suspect union business leave costs the county over a million dollars annually.

Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Baltimore counties

It is not just Prince George’s County that grants union business leave. In Montgomery County, the IAFF President receives 1248 hours annually to conduct union business. A bank of 200 hours of union business leave time is created for union officials to attend conferences and conventions.

Anne Arundel County firefighters represented by IAFF Local 1563 are granted 1,100 hours of union business leave to attend conferences, conventions and union meetings. Members of Anne Arundel Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 70 are given 100 days of paid union business leave to also attend a mixture of conferences and conventions.

Baltimore County public employees represented by AFSCME Local 921 may take 720 hours of union business leave with pay to attend conventions and seminars. The collective bargaining agreement between Baltimore County and IAFF Local 1311 allots 1,100 hours leave with pay annually to representatives of the association for association business.

This is just a snapshot of union business leave granted in Maryland. Most counties and school districts grant some form of paid union leave.

But Prince George’s County and other Maryland counties should be wary of including union business leave in union contracts…and not just to avoid wasting taxpayer dollars on the private interests of government unions when actual public needs could be met.

Impact of gift clauses in state constitutions

A state constitutional provision, appearing in 47 of 50 states, known as the Gift Clause may prohibit the practice of union business leave. In Arizona, the Phoenix police union received union business leave to the tune of $900,000 on an annual basis. However, a decision by the Maricopa County Court, which the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed, concluded union business leave is an unconstitutional subsidy to government unions. Currently, the case is before the Arizona Supreme Court awaiting a decision.

In Arizona, a two-part analysis is used to determine violations of the Gift Clause: 1) the public must receive proportionate, quantifiable and direct benefit for aid given; and 2) the subsidized activity must primarily serve a public purpose as opposed to private interests.

As Maricopa County Judge Catherine Cooper said, "[S]uch activities promote the private interests of PLEA [Phoenix Law Enforcement Association] and, as a result, do not constitute public purposes."

Maryland’s Gift Clause, Article III, section 34 of the Maryland constitution states, “The credit of the State shall in not in any manner be given, or loaned to, or in aid of any individual association or corporation….”

As previous Maryland courts have ruled, public expenditures may aid private entities if it serves a public purpose. Dale Rubin, a former law professor at Willamette University, wrote in a 1996 paper analyzing Maryland’s Gift Clause, the Maryland Court of Appeals, in City of Frostburg v. Jenkins (1957), “stated that an expenditure is for a public purpose if the public receives a ‘benefit.’”

But as Judge Cooper in Arizona noted in her decision, the government union is the only beneficiary of union business leave.

Around the country, budgets in municipalities and counties are tight. Local governments are asked to do more with less. Prince George’s County and other local Maryland governments are no different. When looking to finalize budgets and ratify government union contracts, savings can be found in the form of cutting union business leave.

In Maryland, government unions may compel workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Since Maryland government unions already have an automatic revenue stream of forced union dues in place, they should use those to fund union business not tax dollars.

Originally posted to the Maryland Reporter.