Riverhead CSEA members rally outside the office where union contract negotiations took place Jan. 23. Photo: Alek Lewis

Riverhead civil service employees and their supporters rallied in slushy weather late yesterday afternoon to demand resolution of ongoing contract negotiations between the town and its largest employee union.

Members of the Civil Service Employees Union and their supporters gathered outside the Riverhead Recreation Department office on Columbus Avenue at 4 o’clock Monday, just before the union’s fourth round of contract negotiations with town management were set to get underway inside the office building at Stotzky Park.

Union representatives said they are asking the town for salary increases and other benefits that help cover the rapidly rising cost of living.

“Everybody is united, showing we’re not gonna back down on anything, we want a fair contract,” said Neil D’Amara, vice president of the Riverhead CSEA unit and a highway department employee. “The cost of living increase is major, especially in today’s times. Everybody’s kind of hurting.”

Liam Russertt, a CSEA labor relations specialist, flanked by local unit officers, spoke to the crowd at the rally. Photo: Alek Lewis

Liam Russertt, a CSEA labor relations specialist, said that employees are tired of town officials giving the “bare minimum” to them while they spend money in the town’s general fund on other things.

“A living wage for these people is very hard to have. Everyone out here has two jobs, basically…. plus the cost of living has gotten ridiculous, and we need to make some adjustments. No buyer’s remorse this time,” Russertt said.

Union members said it is not fair that some town employees get an increase over the raises stipulated in their employment contracts for the cost of living — as has happened for the past two years with certain department heads and other employees in town government — but most rank-and-file union members don’t get the same treatment.

The CSEA’s most recent collective bargaining agreement with Riverhead Town ended Dec. 31. It covered the period between Jan. 1, 2019 through the end of 2022 and provided 4% base salary increases over four years, plus 4% increases in salary steps determined by the contract.

Riverhead CSEA members at the Jan. 23 rally. Photo: Alek Lewis

Riverhead Town’s civilian employees are, on average, the lowest paid employees among the five East End towns, Riverhead CSEA Unit President Terri DeFilippis said. 

CSEA workers went six months without a contract the last time their collective bargaining agreement expired.

“We tried to get early negotiations so that our contract would not expire and we could roll in with a fair wage increase in 2023,” DeFilippis said. “And we really got nothing back from them and we only first sat down in December.”

Russertt said the union brought offers for a contract settlement to the first negotiating session in December, but the town “didn’t bring anything” to the table. That meant they were starting from square one at the second session.

That would be okay, he said, if the union representatives were paid for the time they are sitting at the negotiating table. He said that’s one of the terms the union is pushing for in the new agreement.

“They’re taking time away from their second job to sit in and negotiate, for no money for themselves. That’s that thankless wonderful job that they do for us,” DeFilippis said.

A portion of the crowd at the rally. Photo: Alek Lewis

DeFilippis said that when town workers’ wages don’t keep pace with the rising cost of living in inflationary times, it not only hurts the workers, but the whole town.

“Our staffing is very low — white collar and blue collar — because they can’t get anyone to take a job at the low rate of pay coming in,” DeFilippis said. “Highway department or water or sewer district or buildings and grounds loses members. They can’t get clerks to come in for the starting wage. It’s too low. They can’t fill those positions. So all staffing is suffering because of it.”

Union workers showed their support during the rally by holding up signs reading “FAIR CONTRACT NOW,” “FAIR WAGES FOR EVERYONE” and “WE WANT TO EAT TOO,” while chanting “CSEA — we need more pay!” Russertt encouraged all union members to wear their CSEA shirt to work every Friday until the negotiations are concluded.

“At the end of the day it just comes down to, they have to find money for the smaller people — it can’t always just be for the higher ups,” said Chris Bugge, a highway department worker. “It’s time for showing that we want a fair contract and we are not going to wait any longer.”

Photo: Alek Lewis

The town’s contracts with its two police unions — the Riverhead Police Benevolent Association and the Riverhead Police Superior Officers Association — also expired Dec. 31.

Town Board members have made few public comments about the expired labor contracts. Board members have not publicly discussed what the town’s 2023 operating budget includes to cover union contract settlements and the anticipated wage and benefit increases the settlements will require.

In November, Council Member Ken Rothwell voted against the adoption of the 2023 operating budget, which he said contained funds for a 6% raise for all employees other than elected officials. Rothwell said a 6% across-the-board raise is unfair to the town’s “lower-tier” employees, who, he said, “need to be caught up so people can make a decent living in the Town of Riverhead.” The budget is “top-heavy,” Rothwell said, because a flat-rate increase to all workers results in larger dollar increases to higher-paid employees.

Council Member Tim Hubbard, who is one of the town officials on the management negotiating team, supported the budget, which he said is “a good budget in terms of helping to get some of these salaries up for some of our lower-tier employees.” He added, “You can’t do it all at once, as much as you’d like to, and I think it was done as best it could be done.” In subsequent interviews, he declined to discuss specifics while negotiations remain pending.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar’s Chief of Staff/Budget Officer Debi Burkowsky has been the other member of management’s negotiating team.

A worker at the CSEA rally Jan. 3. Photo: Alek Lewis

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com