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January 05, 2011

Freezing the payment of salary increments does not freeze the crediting of service for the purpose of determining an employee's increment step

Freezing the payment of salary increments does not freeze the crediting of service for the purpose of determining an employee's increment step
Matter of Meegan v Brown, 63 AD3d 1673

In response to a State Comptroller's report concerning a fiscal crisis in the City of Buffalo, the State Legislature passed the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority Act on July 3, 2003. The Act, Public Authorities Law §3850 et seq, created the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority (BFSA), a public benefit corporation, to assist in achieving fiscal stability in the City by the 2006-2007 fiscal year.

On April 21, 2004, the BFSA imposed a wage freeze on all employees of the City. The BFSA subsequently lifted the wage freeze effective July 1, 2007.

One of the issues considered in this case was the impact of the wage freeze on the eligibility of employees to “earn increments” under their respective “salary plan” as set out in various collective bargaining agreements. These agreements between the City and the unions representing various negotiating units contain salary plans or schedules for career advancement or promotion. Essentially the plans provided that as an employee acquires service credit or years of employment, he or she is to receive additional salary within his or her salary grade – i.e., a salary increment -- as a result of their being placed in a higher step in the salary grade.

Upon the lifting of the wage freeze, the employees were told would be entitled only to a one "step" increase in salary, in effect providing a “one-step” advancement in their salary grade from the step that they were at when the salary freeze was imposed in 2004.

In contrast, the unions contended that, although the employees could not be paid salary grade increases to which they otherwise would have been entitled during the wage freeze period, they nevertheless were entitled upon the lifting of the wage freeze to be moved ahead four salary "steps" in their salary grade rather then provided with a "one-step" increase. In other words, the employees should be “credited” for their service notwithstanding the fact that they had not actually received salary increments during the period when the salary plan had been frozen by the BFSA.

In the litigation that followed, Supreme Court concluded that the employees were entitled to their previously negotiated “wage increase benefits” – i.e., the negotiated step advancements -- immediately, thereby allowing them to be placed at the step that they would have otherwise enjoyed but for the “wage freeze imposed” by the BFSA.

The Appellate Division agreed, holding that under the plain meaning of the relevant provisions of Public Authorities Law §3858, the negotiated provision providing for the employees' ongoing advancement on the salary schedules as a result of continued accrual of service credit was not cancelled, annulled or eliminated.

Rather, said the court, “the City's obligation to make payment of the type of wage increases in question was suspended until the wage freeze was terminated” [emphasis supplied by the court].
The Appellate Division explained that although employee wage increases were frozen during the period of fiscal crisis, “The City cannot ignore the fact that the employees have continued to accrue service credit and have climbed the ladder of salary and career increments set forth in the collective bargaining agreements.”

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2009/2009_04805.htm

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