At a collective bargaining meeting last week, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, which represents 1,700 of the university’s groundskeepers, maintenance, advisers and nonadministrative staff, rejected a proposal from the university to alter the sick leave payout program.
Hector Ramos, regional director of AFSCME, was the negotiator for the staff union and said after deliberation among members, the union would not agree to any proposal that jeopardized a payout of remaining sick leave at retirement.
The union, Ramos said, felt the new proposal by the university was creating a separate tier of workers who would be doing the same job as other staff workers but would not have the same benefit of cashing out their sick leave.
Previously, employees were able to cash out their accrued hours of paid sick leave at quarter pay. The proposed system would make it so that once employees who cash out their sick leave or who become employed by the university after Jan. 1 would have to use their paid sick leave or lose it.
“If the university wants to save money by offering to employees that have accrued sick leave to sell them back, we are fine with that,” Ramos said at the meeting. “However, this doesn’t mean that they go into a second tier of workers who can’t ever cash out again. We don’t agree to an established tier of workers that, once they start working here or work here, lose their sick leave payout at the end of their career.”
University representatives told the union representative at the meeting the new initiative to alter the sick leave payout system came after the university discovered it had $23 million in accrued sick leave on the books.
John Dickinson, USF’s chief negotiator, told union representatives at the meeting the proposal was a voluntary measure intended to create a university-wide system of sick leave payout.
He also said the university felt the new system offered a benefit to employees who needed quick money in a financial emergency.
Referencing a document provided to the union by USF Vice President of Human Resources Theresa Drye, Ramos said he thought Dickinson’s proposal was misguided.
“If you look at the numbers, staff have only been paid out $253,000 over the last three years,” Ramos said at the meeting. “We are not the dent. By eliminating accrued sick days to my bargaining unit, it’s not even a dent in what you have on the books for accrued sick days. I think that your main concern is with administration or the faculty union, but it’s not with us.”
He also said the document showed that, on average, staff workers generally retire with about $1,400 worth of sick leave pay on the books.
USF Media and Public Affairs Coordinator Adam Freeman said the university did not wish to comment on this article but provided an emailed statement on behalf of Drye, stating the university would continue to utilize the collective bargaining process to deal with union complaints.
“USF values and is committed to our relationship with all of our employees, including those represented by AFSCME,” the statement said. “We firmly believe in the bargaining process and look forward to continuing negotiations.”
Ramos said the collective bargaining meeting last week is representative of a rift between the staff union and university officials that has been playing out for years.
The union has also been in talks with administration for years, asking them for what they see as more fair pay.
According to Ramos, the $9.75 minimum wage offered to staff workers at the university is almost a dollar less than what Hillsborough County workers get. He said the university minimum is not enough for employees to live on.
“We are some of the lowest paid workers at the university,” Ramos said. “Even Hillsborough County recognizes that what we get paid is not a livable wage in the Tampa Bay area, especially when we pay so much money every year for parking passes just to come and work.
Ramos also accused university officials of enacting budget cuts in more subversive ways, saying he believed university officials were systematically replacing normal staff positions over the years with other personnel positions so that the university had to pay out less wages and benefits.
He said, however, because state law puts the burden of proof on the worker, there is no way for workers fired from high-paying staff positions to prove it was for this reason.
Ultimately, Ramos said the bargaining the union has done with the university over the past years has created the feeling among some staff workers that there is a culture of unfairness at the university.
If the two parties can’t reach an agreement on the sick leave payout proposal, the university has the option to declare impasse and the proposal will go before a third-party magistrate.
The recommendation from the magistrate would then go to the Board of Trustees Collective Bargaining Team, which would hear arguments from both sides and issue a binding agreement between the parties.