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Some essential workers push for their own collective bargaining groups at the Legislature

Honolulu Police Department

The state has always been leery to the creation of new collective bargaining units for public employees, and with four measures up at the state Legislature this session, those decisions are at the table again.

Currently, the state hosts 15 collective bargaining units which vary in size and profession. With unit creation at the discretion of the state Legislature, the Hawai'i Labor Relations Board is the authority to place occupational groups within an appropriate unit, Hawai'i Government Employees Association Executive Director Randy Perreira said.

Three essential worker groups are trying to branch off and make their own units this session, including emergency dispatchers, adult correction officers and the Honolulu Emergency Services Department.

In recent memory, lawmakers facilitated a new unit with lifeguards separating from a unit shared with state sheriffs.

"What we've learned through experience is that the bargaining unit alignment is and can be based on the kinds of job responsibilities that individuals have," Perreira said. "That argument made years ago by the sheriffs and the lifeguards that they didn't fit in terms of their job duties and responsibilities with the primarily clerical duties of people in bargaining Unit 3, which is where they were. If you accept that argument, as the Legislature eventually did, then you justified having a separate unit."

The case of the lifeguards and sheriffs branching off from Unit 3 is similar to where emergency telecommunication dispatchers are at today.

Emergency dispatchers seek a separate bargaining unit

Housed in Unit 3, which is historically clerical and non-supervisory white-collar work, dispatchers are making the argument that their job functions align more closely with those in emergency professions.

In this case, Rep. David Tarnas of Hawai'i Island, chair of the House Committee on Judiciary & Hawaiian Affairs, has voiced his favor of dispatchers branching off.

"Emergency dispatchers perform a unique function, very different from clerical staff, and that merits a separate consideration in terms of their employment agreements," Tarnas said at a hearing last week.

Perreira said that incoming changes to the state’s 911 system may be part of the argument.

"We've also been advised by some that are in the management ranks, particularly those involved with emergency management that Hawai'i will soon enough be implementing an enhanced 911 system, which will further complicate and create a more complex dispatch roll," Perreira said. "Based on that, they believe, or have suggested to us, there very well could be the need for a separate bargaining unit to allow for negotiations and agreement on very different working conditions for this group."

State officials oppose separating labor groups

Effectively, the state's Department of Human Resources Development is in opposition to the creation of bargaining units.

Director Brenna Hashimoto also acts as the state’s chief negotiator, and has said in testimony that they look at “what makes sense.”

“In terms of whether a group or of employees should be carved out and negotiate separately, it really speaks to whether the working conditions are so varied that we can't address those concerns under the provisions of the current contract,” Hashimoto said.

In her experience, she said there are usually specific provisions already in current contracts or separate salary raise schedules.

“For example, if there's a specific market condition related to one group of employees, and we can't fill positions based on the salary schedule that's in place, then we perhaps would have a separate salary schedule for those individuals,” Hashimoto said. “You see that in Unit 10, where the EMT and the ACOs are on separate schedules and health care workers on separate schedules.”

In this Aug. 24, 2021, file photo an ambulance sits outside the emergency room at The Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones, File)
Caleb Jones/AP
In this Aug. 24, 2021, file photo an ambulance sits outside the emergency room at The Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones, File)

Prison officers and Honolulu paramedics want better working conditions

The state's Unit 10 includes "institutional, health and correctional" professions, like adult correctional officers and the Honolulu Emergency Services Department, which are both vying for their own units this session.

Twenty-year EMS veteran Kenneth Faria, a chief steward with the United Public Workers union, said the bargaining "system is failing EMS."

Faria said the inability to properly bargain is partially to blame for the department’s attrition, noting that since 2020, the department has hired 124 employees and last 117.

"I anticipated that there's a large amount of paramedics and EMTs (that) are going to leave the system," Faria said. "There's a lot of things to fix in Honolulu EMS, and this would be one of the big pieces of the pie to really address these issues."

All three of these professions, dispatch, EMTs and adult correctional officers are facing critically low staffing levels within the state.

Corrections officer Tuli Tafai testified that working conditions are specific to their job.

“Being in a new bargaining unit could potentially provide the ACOs (adult correctional officers) with opportunity to better negotiate future contracts, some working conditions,” Tafai said. “I'm not sure if you're familiar, we have them working 16, 24, 30, 32, 40, 48 hours.”

University of Hawaiʻi graduate students continue their fight

The fourth bill, House Bill 874, is another attempt by graduate assistants at the University of Hawaiʻi to unionize.

In 2015, former Gov. David Ige vetoed a bill that sought to do the same. No other attempt has gone as far, and this year’s attempt died last week.

Academic Labor United Chair Kawenaʻulaokalā Kapahua said there's a historical connotation they can’t seem to shake.

"The Hawaiʻi Labor Relations Board has their reasoning for us not being public employees," Kapahua said Monday. "It leans upon two decisions in the 1970s, that we didn't fit in the faculty unit, collective bargaining unit seven, which represents the university, or unit eight, which is non-faculty, professional staff at the university wouldn't fit neither of those."

University of Hawaii Manoa Campus
Sophia McCullough

In January, the state Supreme Court heard arguments for and against graduate assistants unionizing. The decision is still pending.

Kapahua, a graduate assistant in the College of Social Sciences working on the Native Hawaiian initiative, said there are about 1,500 others who perform roles including teaching classes, working in the Cancer Research Center and Red Hill water sample testing.

“Graduate assistants are classified as either student help or some kind of other worker,” Kapahua said. “Despite the fact that we are salaried employees of the university, we get paychecks every two weeks, we qualify for the health insurance, we still get taxed the same as everyone else via our income, we are for all intents and purposes workers, except for on paper, they listed anything but.”

All measures except the grad assistant bill have moved forward in their originating chamber.

Sabrina Bodon was Hawaiʻi Public Radio's government reporter.
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