Unions Urge Court Officials to Raise Pay Grades for Clerks

Tuesday, January 12, 2016
Andrew Keshner, NY Law Journal
January 8, 2016
After state court officials recently decided that court officers and sergeants deserved a higher pay grade, union leaders for court clerks say they are making a concerted effort to ensure clerks are next in line.
"We want it, we need it, we deserve it, and we have earned it," said Pamela Browne, president of the New York State Court Clerks Association.
Court administrators announced the re-classification of court officers and sergeants last month for the approximately 3,000 officers and 400 sergeants. The change will cost the Office of Court Administration about $8 million, a sum that is incorporated into the court's 2016-2017 proposed budget.
The pay raises were a reflection of increased responsibilities for the officers and sergeants, officials said. The clerks' representatives say their duties have changed as well.
Browne said clerks' new responsibilities include ensuring the smooth functioning of e-filing, arranging videoconferencing, helping litigants with do-it-yourself systems and doubling as security in Family Court referee parts. She also said clerks stay on top of changes in the law and implement new operating systems, programs and filing requirements.
Browne's estimated 1,550-member organization is teaming up with the Court Officers Benevolent Association of Nassau County, the Ninth Judicial District Court Employees Association and the Suffolk County Court Employees Association to make their case to top-level administrators.
The unions are asking their roughly 2,000 clerk members to write to Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks and are pressing for a meeting with Marks and Janet DiFiore, who Gov. Andrew Cuomo has tapped to become the next chief judge.
William Imandt, president of COBANC a nearly 800 member organization with a quarter of the members as clerks and 30 percent as court officers said no one begrudged an upgrade for the court officers, who "fully deserved" it. But he said the issue of increased clerk pay had been "ignored for three decades."
And now, amid smaller staff and more filings, Imandt said, "you can only hold your breath under water so long. People are really exasperated."
With the expected arrival of DiFiore as chief judge, Imandt said "we're hoping it's a new situation."
While union coalitions have been formed for other matters, Imandt said the extent of this coordination was new. He noted his union was working with eight others representing non-peace officer jobs, which exclude clerks and court officers, to push for similar salary upgrades.
Browne said after court officers were reclassified, and with judges poised to possibly receive their own raises, there was a new sense of urgency. She said her "worst nightmare" was administrators saying they would pay clerks more "and then running out of money again."
Ronald Younkins, executive director of the OCA, said the classification review is proceeding, but no decisions had been made on which job titles to review next.
He said it would be "impossible" to say how long it would take to review all job types-about 500 distinct titles which is a "complex, detail-oriented process."
Asked to comment on the clerks' frustrations, Younkins said, "We recognize the changing nature of the work performed by our court employees and understand the importance of re-examining the classification structure and are committed to reviewing all the titles, including the clerks."
Acknowledging changes in the day-to-day work of court staff and the overall court employee reduction of about 2,000 over the past five years, Younkins said, "I think it's very important that we get back to the process we started years ago to make sure people are properly classified and properly compensated for the work they are doing."
The Unified Court System's classification plan for nonjudicial employees dates back to 1999, but Younkins said review plans have been put on pause over the years by events like the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and then followed by state funding cuts, starting with the 2011 budget, which was slashed by $170 million.
In May 2013, court officials analyzed the pay grade and duties of court officer trainees, who are entry-level court officers. Younkins said part of the analysis was a determination that the courts had difficulties with recruitment. As a result, effective February 2015, the court officer trainee pay level jumped to a level 16 salary from a level 14.
The 2015 starting salary for a level 16 employee was $46,301 in New York City and certain downstate regions. The 2015 starting salary for a level 14 employee was $41,378.
In a Dec. 2 memorandum announcing the upgrades, Younkins said "the changing role played by officers and sergeants reflect changes in the broader society and the increasing importance of security in our public spaces."
As a result of the upgrades, court officers will rise to a level 19 from a level 18. Sergeants will rise to a level 20 from a level 19.
A 2015 grade 19 starting salary was $52,524 and a grade 20 starting salary was $55,280.
Dennis Quirk, head of the New York State Court Officers Association, noted in an interview that since 9/11, there has been an increased security presence at courts, as well as new units, such as a radio car patrols, special response teams, cell extraction and major trial teams.
In New York City, the clerks' entry grade is 21, a $58,298 starting salary last year. Outside the city, it is level 18, which last year had a $49,777 starting salary.
Browne said while it was OCA's call on the extent of any upgrade, she hoped for at least a two-level upgrade in line with a 1990 state Court of Appeals ruling on pay scales for trial and appellate clerks.
The exact dollar value of the salary assigned to certain grades depends on whether the union of the covered employees has reached a contract agreement with OCA. Any salary level upgrades would cut across unions, regardless of the status of a union's contract or lack thereof
Eight unions have signed new collective bargaining agreements with OCA. Four have not; they are COBANC, the New York State Court Clerks Association, New York State Court Officers Association, New York State Supreme Court Officers Association.
The four unions are plaintiffs suing OCA over employee healthcare contributions. Their cases are pending in the Northern District, along with similar cases that other municipal unions have filed against other branches and agencies over healthcare contributions.
Younkins said there was "absolutely no relationship" between the classification process and contract status.
Message from President Billy Imandt
Clerks keep your letters coming! There is a Clerk partnership meeting with Judge Marks this Friday, January 15th.
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