Jan. 6, 2003 Two days before Christmas, Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin "invited" his St. Croix employees to an awards ceremony in grinch-like fashion: If they didn't attend, their pay would be docked four hours. Benjamin's invitational style is now drawing criticism from his employees and has sparked a war of words between him and Sen. Usie Richards.
In a memo dated Dec. 22, Benjamin gave his St. Croix employees four hours off on the afternoon of Dec. 23 to prepare for a 7 p.m. employee recognition and award ceremony. However, the time off came with strings attached: "be further advised that anyone who does not attend this function without a valid excuse will be docked."
Benjamin followed this with a Dec. 24 memo titled "Unauthorized Absence" advising that employees who did not attend the function "must be carried leave without pay for four hours on that day. This must be reported as an adjustment on the next due payroll. Only employees who submit a valid excuse will receive regular time."
On Monday Sen. Usie Richards wrote Benjamin, questioning his tactics and copying the letter to his fellow members of the Senate Labor and Veterans Affairs Committee, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and his chief of staff, and the news media. In the letter, Richards said he had received "numerous complaints" from Labor employees.
"As a member of the Senate Committee on Labor and Veterans Affairs," Richards wrote, "I am particularly outraged by your seemingly lack of knowledge or understanding of existing labor laws and/or collective bargaining agreements as they relate to government employees."
On Tuesday morning, Benjamin hotly defended his actions. "The issue is moot," he said. "The real point is that action [docking employees' pay] has not been taken. If the senator had picked up the phone out of professional courtesy, he would have known that no action has been taken."
Benjamin said Turnbull, Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards and Senate President David Jones have called him as a result of Richards' letter, "and all were told the issue is moot."
Benjamin said the memos were issued at the request of his department's Labor and Management Committee, which addresses morale issues. While not giving a reason for reversal of the pay-docking policy, he said: "From my vantage point, I really didn't want to give the time off, but they [the committee] asked, and I gave it to them. We tried to encourage, to impress upon them [the employees] that they should be committed to attend."
In a phone conversation later Tuesday, Benjamin said of his employees: "They need to be responsible. What we are dealing with is an approach to make sure people are responsible and don't throw away four hours. We need some semblance of discipline."
There were two "main issues" involved as to whether his department's actions were "legal" or not, Benjamin said. "The real point is that action has not been taken. It's an internal affairs matter. Any department can have its policy."
He continued: "The next issue is my knowledge of collective bargaining. It's totally ludicrous coming from somebody like him [Richards]. I am responsible for these labor issues; I spent about four years writing that stuff. My imprint is on all the labor agreements most of the union contracts are patterned after the AFT. I know the laws, and I know exactly what we're doing."
Before assuming becoming Labor commissioner in 2001, Benjamin headed the St. Croix district local of the American Federation of Teachers for 20 years.
Benjamin said award ceremonies held this year one was also on St. Thomas a week prior to the St. Croix function were the first the department has held to reward its employees. "We are working to make sure we have a good working relationship with union employees, and we've been doing very good so far," he said.
"There are a lot of pluses out there," Benjamin said. "This kind of negative controversy, that's ignorance." He called the controversy "a non-issue. It doesn't do anything to improve our standard of living. These are the kind of things these numbskulls do to create problems for this territory."
Asked how the two events were funded, Benjamin said: "The committee paid. They raise their own funds with bake sales and things like that."
No memos were issued regarding attendance at the St. Thomas ceremony because it was held on a weekend. Benjamin couldn't say how many employees attended either ceremony. However, he said both were "well attended." He also couldn't say how many would have been affected by the now "moot" memo.
He also said the ceremonies were not originally scheduled for Christmas time. "They were supposed to have been held in March," he said, "but certain things delayed that — the awards didn't come in — so we tried to hold them in September, Labor month, but we still didn't have everything, so we extended it to December."
Late Tuesday afternoon Richards replied. "The fact of the matter is that as far back as Dec. 30, my office was fielding numerous calls about the issue," he said. "It was my hope that by waiting until Jan. 5 [to write Benjamin], he would have taken some action to rescind his earlier memos. Today, despite statements in the paper (Tuesday's issue of The Avis) that he has rescinded those memos, there has been no memo issued to the employees stating that in writing."
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