A two-year-long contract negotiation between the Town of Hartford and the Hartford Town Highway Department employees has gone nowhere, leading to mediation and an “impasse.”
Jason Morehouse, Jeff Chapin and Dave Swezey are three of the four full-time highway department workers who are unsatisfied with their current status. Working four 10-hour days a week, the full-time staff makes $18.50 an hour (six-month probation period upon employment is $16.60 an hour).
“We come to a standstill,” Morehouse said. (“Haff) wants to remove our 10-hour day. When we’re working 10-hour days, we’re more productive. The extra two hours a day makes such a difference.”
Hartford highway department superintendent Greg Brown agrees with Morehouse’s statement and thinks the taxpayers would benefit from the 10-hour days year-round.
“We’re more efficient and more productive,” Brown said. “The taxpayers are getting the better bang for their buck.”
Haff weighed in on the situation via phone call.
“We are at an impasse,” Haff said. “We have not had a contract since Jan. 1, 2020. When you do not have a contract, you continue paying the wages from your last contract… I’m not going to comment on anything beyond that.”
Haff said the mediator, John Trello, and the board’s attorney, John D. Aspland Jr. of FitzGerald, Morris, Baker & Firth, P.C., will handle the negotiating with the labor union going forward.
Morehouse and his colleagues claim the board and Haff are unwilling to provide a wage increase in a new contract if they keep the 10-hour workdays year-round.
Aspland Jr. was unable to provide a comment by press time.
The three work Monday through Thursday with Friday through Sunday off, unlike most nearby municipalities who install “construction season and winter season” hours which would see five eight-hour workdays in the colder months and four 10-hour work days during the warmer months.
“He wants us to give up something to get a wage,” Morehouse said.
According to Teamsters, the highway department’s labor union, the three workers and Brown, Haff was the one who approved the 10-hour workdays six years ago.
The three colleagues feel $18.50 an hour is below living wage standards for Washington County and have asked the Town Board and Haff to give them a 2.5% increase in pay on a five-year contract.
The most recent study listing living wage rates in Washington County comes from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s website.
In 2019, assuming the household consists of two working adults and no children, the living wage rate was $11.62 an hour. The one child rate was listed at $16.33 an hour, with two children being $20.72 an hour and three children being $24.42 an hour.
A significant jump is seen with two adults but only one adult working with the living wage rate for zero children being $23.24 an hour, one child at $27.76 an hour, two children at $31.45 an hour and three children at $33.94 an hour.
For a single individual with no children, living wage was set at $14.57 an hour and skyrocketed up to $29.76 an hour with one child, $37.38 an hour with two children and $48.34 an hour with three children.
Chapin is the most experienced of the workers with 10 years as a member of the highway department followed by Swezey who is going on three years and then Morehouse who started last February.
“The reasons why I stay here are that it’s five minutes away from home, Greg (Brown) is good to me and for the insurance and the retirement,” Chapin said.
Brown, in his 12th year as Hartford’s highway superintendent, said he feels his workers deserve their requests.
“I think they deserve a pay raise, no doubt in my mind,” Brown said. “They shouldn’t have to give up anything for a pay raise. Those guys give me everything they got every day… everybody pays taxes, but they have families they need to take care of too.”
There are some differing opinions on job responsibility and duties.
Morehouse said that the contract states the workers are responsible for “light maintenance” on vehicles when he and Chapin have completely restored the undercarriage of a daily truck as well as making repairs on a second daily-use truck for under $15,000.
Haff says the description expands more than that.
“They do a lot of things as a motor equipment operator,” Haff said.
Some daily duties a Hartford resident could visualize a highway department worker doing are replacing culverts, cutting brush and paving roads during the summer and plowing roads for school busses and other vehicles in the winter.
Morehouse talked about the use of the term “essential worker” being taken seriously during COVID-19.
“If you have COVID, wear a mask and stand in the corner, that’s what we were told,” Morehouse said.
Haff said the town followed all Washington County Department of Public Health guidance and advice during the heat of the pandemic.
“I said that all of our workers were essential workers,” Haff said. “If the Washington County Department of Public Health called us and told us this person needs to isolate at home, then we would do that.”
Brown and Morehouse talked about the desire for upgraded equipment to work with, as Morehouse and Chapin said the most recent truck the department is using is from 2009.
“We’ve got some pieces of equipment that could be upgraded, absolutely,” Brown said.
“Our equipment is borderline unsafe,” Morehouse said. “We’re not saying we need new equipment, we’re saying we need updated equipment… In one snowstorm, four trucks were down, these guys put ‘em back together and got them back on the road.”
Morehouse and his fellow coworkers don’t feel support from townspeople either.
“They think we’re overpaid, they think we’re getting paid $30 an hour.”
Teamsters union representative Rocco Losavio and public relations specialist Bonnie Torchia spoke with NYVT Media via phone call as well regarding the situation. Losavio said talks are not “completely dead in the water” after collective bargaining discussions with Trello and Aspland Jr. have attempted to bridge gaps.
Losavio and Torchia added their support for the highway guys and that according to their contract, it is the sole discretion of the highway superintendent to determine the hours of work for their staff, not the board.
“They go above and beyond in their role and duty in the town of Hartford,” Losavio said.
“I just feel the town is not appreciating them the way they should be appreciated in terms of wages,” Torchia said.
Information Losavio gave to the highway department workers and then provided to NYVT Media revealed town highway department wages in nearby townships in Washington County.
Starting out wages in Dresden are $21.50 an hour, $20.22 an hour in White Creek and $25.25 an hour in Putnam.
An Argyle truck driver makes $21.39 an hour while Argyle laborers make $18.33 an hour.
Jackson workers earned a 3% raise and Salem just received a 2% raise.
“So we’re definitely not asking for anything unreasonable for a 2.5% raise,” Morehouse said.
Morehouse said at the end of the day, it comes down to support and appreciation for an often thankless job.
“We need the town board to get behind us, and the town,” he said.