Some of Louisville’s public sector unions, and the workers they represent, are in wait-and-see mode after the city announced employees may be reassigned to help respond to the coronavirus pandemic.  

Mayor Greg Fischer signed an executive order on March 13, declaring a state of emergency. Under Kentucky state law, that grants him significant powers intended to help the city respond quickly to the pandemic. 

One of those powers is to amend or selectively enforce city contracts, including those with public sector unions. Louisville currently has 24 contracts with public unions, representing everyone from librarians to park workers to corrections officers to traffic guards. 

When Fischer extended the state of emergency on March 24, he laid out what that would mean for city employees: “Effective today, Louisville Metro agencies are hereby empowered to request or, as needed, require employees to work in other areas of their agencies or in other Louisville Metro agencies…while retaining their current rate of pay, benefits, and other rights according to their current Collective Bargaining Agreement and/or Louisville Metro policies.”

The order also increased the amount of time the city had to respond to union grievances. 

Metro government spokesperson Jean Porter said in an email that “the intent is to fill gaps as needed and use resources in line with the existing contract language.”

“It is not our intent to make any additional changes to the contract or place workers into roles outside the scope of their classification,” she wrote. “The contract language has not changed.”

Porter said some city employees have already been reassigned, mostly working with 311 and helping with meal distribution through the Department of Resilience and Community Services. 

Porter said it’s not an uncommon practice during states of emergency.

But to move employees around, the city may have to override aspects of otherwise sacrosanct union contracts. The city’s unions are preparing for what these changing requirements could mean for the workers they represent. Andrew Burcham, a lawyer and organizer with AFSCME, said he can’t remember a recent state of emergency where workers were reassigned in large numbers. 

Burcham works with Local 2629, which represents some parks, revenue, technology, zoo and corrections employees. He said he and leaders from other city unions were told about the mayor’s plans right before he announced them publicly. 

“It’s something we didn’t anticipate,” he said. “If there’s a flood or a tornado, things shut down differently. A pandemic just changes what the city needs from us.” 

AFSCME 3425, which represents library workers, declined to comment for the story. But in emails sent to union members, union leaders said it was “disturbing” to learn that aspects of union contracts could be waived amid the declaration of emergency.  

Other unions said they were not expecting to see their contracts impacted by the state of emergency declaration. 

“Anything is possible, but we fully expect them to honor the contract and we will do the same,” said Teamsters 783 President John Stovall, who represents EMS, public works employees and other workers. 

Morgain Patterson, director of municipal law for the Kentucky League of Cities, said cities have the right to temporarily amend these contracts amid an emergency. But she had not yet heard much discussion about governments doing so. 

Burcham said he is in touch with Metro Human Resources daily to sort out what this declaration means for the 1,000 workers he represents. He applauded Fischer for adopting the emergency paid sick leave policy, which grants 10 days paid time off for employees who develop coronavirus symptoms or are directed to self-quarantine. 

He said he believes Metro is working in good faith to protect the health of the city, and “our goal is never to make things harder.” 

But, he said, there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty as city employees continue to go to work — and await news of possible reassignment. 

“Our motivation is the health and safety of our workers,” he said, “and finding a way to make sure these people … have a safe way to provide for their families and not get sick.”

KyCIR spoke to more than 10 Metro employees represented by unions, almost all of whom didn’t want to be quoted or identified, about how this change is impacting them. Most were not aware before this declaration that Metro government had the right to amend their contracts during an emergency. 

Essential? Some Question

This declaration comes at a time when some city workers said they don’t feel Metro government has their backs. 

Several told KyCIR they have not received adequate communication from city officials about when or whether they might be redeployed to coronavirus-related jobs. So for now, most city employees are reporting to their normal jobs in-person every day, some doing work they believe is not essential amid the pandemic. 

At the city’s libraries, which closed to the public on March 14, employees are doing work they say is important — inventorying and providing upkeep to the library collections, program planning — but not particularly timely. The biggest public service they’re offering, they say, is answering phone calls, which could be done from home.

“Everyone is scared,” said a library employee, who asked not to be named to protect her job. “Once someone comes into work, and they’re a carrier, there’s no telling what’s going to happen to the rest of the employees. Being out when the governor has told us to be healthy at home — morale is pretty low around here.” 

While some library branches allow for adequate social distancing, others do not. She said keeping these buildings open and requiring people to come to work is a waste of the city’s limited resources — particularly cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer and protective equipment. A lot of employees take the TARC bus to work, and many are in a vulnerable population or live with people who are. 

She said they have been told that they cannot work from home, but have not been given a good reason as to why. 

“We would love to help the community. We would just like to do it safely, from home, with pay,” she said. “We could answer the unemployment line, we could be answering library questions. We could also be working on our own professional development.” 

Another library employee told KyCIR she is happy to come to work — it’s giving her a sense of normalcy — but she is very anxious about the prospect of being asked to transfer to another department.  

Others echoed that concern, saying they are happy to help out but do not want to be sent to a call center, or other location with new people, when all the guidance is to stay home.

“If I’m sent to another agency, that would just expand the number of people I’m interacting with,” said the library employee, who also asked not to be named to protect her job. “That’s the last resort, if the choice is between going to another agency or going to furlough and not getting paid.”

That’s the other, equally serious, fear among city employees — that if they push too hard about their work being non-essential right now, that they’ll be furloughed or laid off. 

Porter said in an email that there is plenty of work. 

“This is an evolving situation, but at this time, we are not furloughing or laying off,” she wrote. 

City employees say all of this has left them stuck between a rock and a hard place — but mostly, for now, just stuck. They’re going to work every day, waiting to see how this all shakes out. The unions that represent them are in the same position. 

Under the law, when the crisis has passed, any contract language changed during the state of emergency would be reinstated. 

“And then we go back to business as usual — or as usual as it will be by then,” said Burcham. “We’ll be there, helping Louisville to pick back up the pieces.” 

Eleanor Klibanoff covered Rust Belt decline and revival in Pennsylvania. She also worked for NPR and attended the George Washington University.