20 Aug 2014
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Dispute Heats Up Over Firing of Four Paraprofessionals

At issue is whether the former employees had union representation when they were dismissed.

Dispute Heats Up Over Firing of Four Paraprofessionals Dispute Heats Up Over Firing of Four Paraprofessionals

A union acting on behalf of four school paraprofessionals has filed complaints against the with the  Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations over the former employees’ termination earlier this summer, union official Annie MacDonald confirmed late last week.

“We just want them to sit down and talk with us,” MacDonald said of one complaint the union filed, which is officially termed a municipal prohibitive practice complaint and derives from the Municipal Employee Relations Act.

“Clearly, we will follow the process,” said MacDonald, who serves as a field representative for the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America or UE, which is the union that represents the Branford paraprofessionals. 

“There will be a mediation session to see if we can work something out,” she said, adding that a mediation session should take place between the BOE and the union in one month to six weeks. “It’s going to be a costly process for the district,” she said.

On Aug. 1, the district posted nine paraprofessional vacancies on the employment section of its website. These vacancies came about after four paraprofessionals, formerly with the had been released by the BOE in late June and early July, reportedly for budgetary reasons.

According to MacDonald, all four paraprofessionals – one, with 26 years of experience – applied for the paraprofessional positions when the nine vacancies existed. None were hired and, as of Aug. 18, only two paraprofessional listings remained as vacancies on the school district’s site. 

On June 15, the paraprofessionals in the school district – or, para-educators as the employees are increasingly called – had voted overwhelmingly to form a union; although no contract has, as yet, been ratified, and, according to MacDonald, the election was not certified for one week.

MacDonald said three of the four were let go within a week of the election – one, she said, on the very day of the election - with the fourth let go in July.

Key to the Branford situation is whether or not the paraprofessionals were employed “at will“ when they were released. According to state labor laws, an “at will” status means that an employee can be terminated without reason. 

The union believes that the employees were not employed at will because the election conferred upon them union representation. That means the union would have sat down with the district and discussed issues that affect lay-offs such as seniority and job performance, MacDonald said.

MacDonald also noted that, to her knowledge, the Mary T. Murphy Elementary School, where all four were employed, is the one school in the district that does not evaluate its paraprofessionals.

The school district differs in its interpretation of the former employees’ status, questioning whether, in the absence of a contract or collective bargaining agreement, the paraprofessionals were guaranteed union representation at the time of their dismissal.

“It’s going through a process and we’ll just have to see how it is resolved,” said Frank Carrano, chairman of the town's Board of Education. 

For 25 years Carrano was president of the teachers’ union in New Haven. 

“It’s just something that is going to have to work its way through the process,” he said. “The union was just formed. They don’t have a contract. The issue is whether or not there are rights that are applicable to the group.”

did not immediately return a call requesting comment.

The BOE is represented by the law firm of Shipman & Goodwin.

“We didn’t come out with guns blazing,” MacDonald said of the union’s efforts on behalf of the paraprofessionals. She said that she had met with the superintendent once, but that he reconsidered and, ultimately, declined a second meeting.

Most recently, the union tried to restore the paraprofessionals to their positions with a visit Aug. 17 by two union officials to the BOE meeting, where each implored the BOE to reinstate the four former employees. 

“We don’t want to go to the labor relations board,” said Raymond F. Pompano, who is vice president of the UE Northeast Region, to the BOE. “We just want to do what is fair.” 

Colleen Ezzo, another union representative, also urged the board to reinstate the former employees, whom she termed dedicated and valued employees.

In response to the union officials’ comments, Carrano noted that the board could not discuss a contractual matter in a public forum, while Superintendent Hernandez strongly encouraged the four to apply to the paraprofessional openings.

As of Aug. 18, two vacancies remained. At present, the four are collecting unemployment benefits and looking for work, MacDonald said.

MacDonald said that most paraprofessionals in Connecticut are unionized. 

“The primary reason for these [paraprofessionals in Branford] to unionize was respect,” she said, citing pay as one issue. “They are extremely poorly paid. We’re talking $11, $12, $13 an hour. That’s people who have been there maybe 15 or 20 years.”

In other districts within the state, she noted that paraprofessionals with as little as five years experience earn between $16 and $18 an hour.

MacDonald pointed to the credentials para-educators can carry, noting that many paraprofessionals have college degrees, some have master’s degrees and that some had worked as teachers before accepting para-educator status while they raised their families.

Vital as well, she said, was the role the para-educator position played in the careers of college graduates who found themselves unable to secure full-time teaching positions. 

“I can honestly say, for the last 10 years, if you didn’t get a teacher’s job, you got a paraprofessional job,” she said.  

“The philosophy of UE is to work things out. We don’t like to fight," McDonald said. "We’re very good at working things out.” 

She pointed to Wallingford, where the union represents paraprofessionals within that school district. “We talk things out. That’s what we were hoping to see here.” 

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