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Understaffing

UNDERSTAFFING & WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT

Robin Nahin, Association Staff

There is an old adage in labor relations: "Management has the right to Manage." This means that the City’s elected officials, in their wisdom, have the right to decide how public money will be spent and how the City’s services will be rendered. With amazingly few legal boundaries, they can decide which programs to run, how to run them – and how to staff them.

Among those few "boundaries," however, are YOUR rights as an employee. The City cannot violate State or Federal law, nor can it violate your Union Contract. So, even though the Council and Management have broad powers to decide how to conduct the City’s business, you have the right to a safe, non-harassing, non-discriminatory workplace.

The City’s right to manage and your right to a comfortable workplace are usually compatible. When revenues are down, however the City’s effort to provide full, high-quality service may run into direct conflict with YOUR effort to maintain decent wages and benefits, in a safe and comfortable environment. After all, public services are labor intensive: it is virtually impossible for public agencies to sustain the same level of activity with less money, without putting "the squeeze" on you.

"The squeeze" can take a variety of forms. Certainly it shows up in the bargaining process in the form of lower pay increases and cutbacks in benefits – especially to new hires. But if you’re in the middle of a contract, your wages and benefits are protected. Management knows that if it tries to take anything back out of the negotiated agreement, or to "cut corners" protected by state or federal law, your Association will respond legally.

But "management does have the right to manage," and since there are virtually no laws defining how many people must be on a job, nor how many hours in a row they can work, it is almost inevitable that declining city revenues will result in understaffing.

Think of it from their point of view: your Department head is told to cut his budget 5% or 10% or even 20%.

What can he do? The very first thing is to put a "hold" on filling vacant positions. In a small department, this saves a LOT of money. Of course, it can have a LOT of impact, also – but mostly on other people, not on him.

The effects that understaffed work conditions may have on employees can vary widely from place to place: out-of-class work, excessive hours of work, emotional problems, stress-related illness or conflict on the job, etc.

The extent to which people can, or will, tolerate understaffed conditions varies a great deal. Some people speak up right away, others will never complain. The fact is that the vast majority of public employees believe in working hard and serving the public. They DON’T want to make waves, and are, in fact, pretty understanding when their departments have tight budgets. Further, most people are willing "pitch in" with extra help, now, with the assumption that they will be appreciated and rewarded, later.

But what happens when understaffing continues for months? What happens when "pitching in" just leads to MORE pitching in? Carrying the workload of several jobs inevitably takes a toll on people’s well-being. I have watched employees overachieve to the point of hysteria or hospitalization before they will speak up about unacceptable conditions.

So, what are "unacceptable conditions? And, if "management has the right to manage," what can you do to control them? The answer is that you have the right to take action over violations of rights, including your right to a safe and healthy workplace. Your rights ARE being violated when these kinds of conditions arise:

  • Excessive hours of work
  • Inability to take lunches or breaks
  • Inability to schedule or use vacation, holiday or comp time
  • Encouragement to come to work when sick, or family is sick
  • Encouragement to take work home or work extra hours "off the clock"
  • Dangerous working conditions, including working alone when you should be in pairs or failing to take safety precautions due to time pressure
  • Actual injuries due to the above
  • Harassment from supervisors for unfinished work
  • Tension with co-workers caused by understaffed conditions
  • Working "out-of-classification"
  • Inability ever to finish work; constant interruptions
  • Stress-related illnesses due to the above
  • Poor performance review or reprimands, for unfinished work

Some of these are simple violations. Others, if left unaddressed, can become expensive lawsuits. (Some employers seem terribly "penny-wise, pound-foolish: failing to fill jobs until employees get sick or litigious.) Either way, if you or your co-workers are facing a number of "unacceptable conditions," you have every right to request relief.

The first step in "requesting relief" is to talk to your supervisor and, possibly, your union rep. People often assume that their boss knows more about their activities and workload than he actually does. If you have never told him directly that you’re overloaded, do so now. Be specific; you may want to give him a list of the times you’ve worked through lunch or been denied vacation requests or worked a 50-hour week. It’s reasonable to ask who else may be given some of the work – and when. If you don’t think he understood the severity of your problem, follow up with an email, and cc your union rep.

If you supervisor tells you that there is no relief on the horizon (i.e. no one new being hired, nor anyone else to take some of your workload) you should consider filing a grievance. Give your union rep a list of your violations and let him or her guide you "up the chain" of command.

A Group Grievance - Maybe?

If you are working in understaffed conditions, you are probably not the only person suffering. Filing a grievance as a group not only lends credence to your complaint, but lowers the likelihood that you will become the target of your manager’s irritation. Your union representative has the task of organizing the list of violations from everyone affected by your information, filing a complaint and arranging a meeting with City Management.

In the meeting your representative will enumerate your complaints. Keep in mind that a grievance is a complaint over legal violations; it is NOT a complaint that you have "too much work to do." Unless you are being denied your negotiated time off, or being harassed, or being made mentally or physically ill, you do not have a grievance.

The City’s response…

Management's resolution to your grievance does not have to include hiring more help. It DOES have to address your rights violations: providing reasonable work hours, protection against harassment or unsafe conditions, the right to schedule vacations or go to lunch, etc. Your department can do this any way it wishes: assigning the excess work to someone else (hence the value of a group grievance,) restructuring the work, or simply telling you what tasks need not be finished. Your rep will summarize the outcome of the grievance meeting, for future reference, in a letter to your management.

Most Managers will take staffing grievances seriously due to the morale problems - productivity problems - that bad work conditions create. When employees are angry, overwhelmed or exhausted, they don’t do their jobs very well. Often, however, Management is unaware of the high level of stress that the understaffing has created. It may take a formal grievance to articulate the problem.

Further, if your first line of supervision doesn’t want (or have the authority to) to resolve your complaints, a formal grievance goes to the next level of Management. This will mean that the immediate supervisor will now have his management skills scrutinized – an activity he would certainly prefer to avoid!

Ultimately, if employees are the victims of contract violations in the form of abusive work conditions, they can seek relief from a third party: a Civil Service or Personnel Commission, or the City Council. Under some conditions the case may even to the Public Employment Relations Board.

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