by Daniel R. Dowdy, Esq.
Under the New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act, it is unlawful for a school board to change the negotiated pay schedule for employees without warning, and without first negotiating that change with the local association. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, that is precisely what the Deptford Township Board of Education tried to do to its transportation workers.
Without any notice or negotiations, the board changed the pay schedule for these employees. As a result, they would not receive their full first paycheck for the school year on Sept. 15, despite having been paid in equal installments based on scheduled work for decades prior. Worse yet, it did so at the very last moment, only informing the Deptford Education Association of this change on Aug. 31, 2022, less than a week before classes began.
As soon as it became aware of the change in pay schedule, DEA contacted NJEA Region 2 UniServ Representative Lou Randazzo.
“You can’t just suddenly change the way you pay these employees,” Randazzo said. “They have bills that come due on the 15th, and they expect a full paycheck. They have mortgages, automatic withdrawals, car payments. They have to buy groceries.”
Randazzo referred the matter to two NJEA network attorneys at Selikoff and Cohen, P.A., Keith Waldman and me. We immediately contacted impacted members and swiftly filed for an injunction before the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC). In doing so, we argued that Deptford transportation workers would suffer irreparable harm because of the board’s unilateral change in the pay schedule.
This claim was backed up by certifications from the transportation workers themselves, who were willing to stand up for their right to be paid the way they had every reason to believe they would be paid. Some of these transportation workers had been employed in the school district for 20 or 30 years. With these certifications in hand, Waldman and I asked PERC to issue an order requiring the board to pay its transportation workers in full and to do so without delay.
On Oct. 5, PERC issued a decision agreeing with DEA. In doing so, PERC cited the transportation workers’ individual certifications and issued an order requiring the board to return these employees to the pay schedule they had been on for decades. The decision also required that the board pay its transportation workers in full for any payments they had not received prior to the decision, as well as to make them whole for any late fees or other costs they had incurred as a result of their not being paid on time.
Notably, this decision from PERC also discussed the devastating impact a sudden change in pay can have on employees and adopted DEA’s argument that even if pay is not reduced overall, a change in the pay schedule itself can hurt workers. Noting that 64% of working families live paycheck-to-paycheck, PERC reasoned that “to an employee whose bills are due today, it is of little consolation to know that, weeks or months from today, he or she will receive a pay bump.” This is undoubtedly true.
Quick action and quick thinking by the local association and UniServ, with the full support of NJEA and its legal services team, led to a great victory for these transportation workers, who could have been negatively impacted by the sudden and unplanned changes in their pay structure.
Daniel R. Dowdy is an attorney with Selikoff & Cohen, P.A. in Mount Laurel. Dowdy is one of NJEA’s network attorneys.