By Rich Pollack

    Concerned about cuts to their benefits and the potential for more, Highland Beach’s civilian town employees have begun the process of forming a union.
    “On behalf of all the non-sworn and civilian employees, we are very upset at the fact that the town of Highland Beach has been reducing our employee benefits,” Fraternal Order of Police state representative Joe Puleo wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to town commissioners. “The employees have now chosen to join the Florida State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police as union members and the FOP will be placing the town on notice to refrain from reducing benefits.”
    Puleo’s request not to change employee benefits drew a heated response from Vice Mayor Bill Weitz, who has been one of the strongest proponents of trimming benefits he thinks are unnecessary.
    “This is nothing more than a move to stop this commission from moving forward with legitimate changes,” he said. “This is a deliberate attempt to undermine the authority of this commission.”
    Puleo, whose organization currently represents Highland Beach’s sworn police officers, said civilian town employees concerned about changes to their health benefits approached him several weeks ago. He said they approached him again late last month after town commissioners discussed additional cuts to benefits.
    “Highland Beach is a town that has always treated its employees well,” Puleo said. “These are hard-working people and for the town to mistreat them is just not fair.”
    He said an election on whether or not the employees should join the union can be held if 33 percent of eligible employees agree to begin the process of forming a bargaining unit.
    At an Aug. 2 meeting, Town Attorney Glen Torcivia said 14 of the 16 eligible employees had submitted cards indicating they were in favor of exploring whether to join a union.  
    Among the full-time employees who would be covered — if employees voted to have a union — are six employees in the town’s water treatment plant, three public works employees and two each in the public library and the building department. One employee each in the finance department, Police Department and in the clerk’s office would also be eligible.
    Puleo said it is not uncommon for non-sworn employees to choose to be represented by the FOP, adding that the union represents similar groups in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
    Town commissioners have been chipping away at employee benefits for several months, beginning last year when they cut employee raises.
    “The benefit reduction is uncalled for and has left all employees of the town no choice in forming a union,” Puleo wrote.
    Since 1992, non-union employees received an annual 5 percent merit raise and a cost-of-living adjustment. Beginning in October, the salary increases for this fiscal year were limited to 3 percent with no cost-of-living increase.
    In addition, commissioners previously agreed to eliminate an education bonus employees received for having college degrees.
    At a meeting early this month, commissioners agreed to eliminate deferred compensation ranging from $250 to $500 given to employees who do not have family members enrolled in the town’s health insurance plan.
    That change goes into effect Oct. 1.
    Commissioners this month also adopted a personal time off policy that would combine sick days, vacation days and non-federal paid holidays into a fixed number of days off calculated for each employee based on their longevity.
    That change goes into effect Jan. 1.
    The next step, according to Puleo, is for the employee’s cards to be submitted to the state Public Employees Relations Commission, which is authorized to host the election.

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