Union Fights Hartford's Layoff Of Tree Trimmers

One of Hartford’s largest labor unions is moving forward with a grievance it filed against the city, arguing that it has violated its collective bargaining agreement by replacing laid-off employees with subcontractors.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 4, Local 1716, filed the grievance in June 2016, weeks after the city’s two full-time tree trimmers were laid off from the department of public works for the sake of municipal belt tightening. At the same time, the grievance states, the city entered into contracts with local offices of Asplundh and SavATree, two national tree-service companies.

A hearing is scheduled for Thursday morning before the state board of labor relations in Wethersfield. A spokesman for Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said the city would be unable to comment on the grievance until after the hearing.

“Our hope is that we can solve this, get our guys back on the job and get them the restitution we think they deserve,” said Robert Swain, the president of Local 1716. “Our employees are willing to help the city to solve its financial issues. We didn’t create the problem, but we are willing to be part of the solution, through collective bargaining.”

Currently, the 400 workers represented by Local 1716 are working under an expired contract. Its members rejected a deal presented by Bronin in May and remain in arbitration.

The two laid-off workers each earned about $45,000 annually, according to data from the union. But city records show Hartford held contracts with outside tree-service providers even while it maintained those positions.

Despite the grievance, Hartford has no active contract with Asplundh, according to officials. It does, however, have a contract with SavATree, as well as two other tree companies, Marchion & Faucher and Northern Tree Service. Those contracts stipulate the companies will provide tree pruning and removal services as “on-call” work, to be distributed “at the discretion of the city.”

In the fiscal year ending June 2016, when the layoffs occurred, the city paid outside vendors $910,763.32 for tree-removal services. A year prior, it paid $309,864. And, most recently, the city paid $471,878.06 in the fiscal year ending June 31, 2017, according to data from the city’s procurement services department.

Still, the union argues that hiring the tree work out is insufficient and that the city is allowing its greenery to deteriorate.

“Our guys maintained all of the city’s parks, the streets, all of the roads — the contractors only come in when there’s an emergency, when we have issues with a tree down or a wire down,” Swain said. “Now, the trees aren’t being pruned; they’re not being maintained,” he added. “Our guys worked year-round and when they saw a problem, they alleviated it.”

Jack Hale, the president of Hartford’s Tree Advisory Commission, shares similar concerns, and has expressed them to Bronin’s office as recently as two weeks ago.

“When you have forestry crews out there dedicated to taking care of the forest in the city, while going out to answer a call about a tree that fell or needs pruning, they’re going to see other issues out there and they can address that,” Hale said. “When you’re working with a contractor, the city forester has to ID all the work needed to be done, turn it into a work order, put it out to bid, and then get the people out that way.”

Hale sent a memo to the mayor asking him to restore DPW’s forestry crew, and provided several options for doing so, varying on “expectations of quality.” While Hale hasn’t received any formal response, he says there was a “generally positive reaction.” He noted that even if the positions are restored, the city would still have to maintain contracts at some level for emergencies that city crews aren’t equipped to handle.

“First off, city has legal responsibilities. For better or worse, trees that aren’t well-maintained get dangerous, and you’re talking about a liability that the city has,” he said. “And you can either go out and take care of the trees and keep them in good shape, or you can ignore that responsibility and it could become negligence.”

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