On a good day it is difficult to give general advice about negotiating a school district collective negotiations agreement.  During these uncertain times, it proves almost impossible.  However, NJSBA has received questions on the current state of negotiations, and so is providing an update.

First and foremost, nothing has been passed through legislation or Executive Order that affects a district’s ability to negotiate at this time (virtually or electronically). Districts may choose to begin or continue to negotiate at any point they deem appropriate.  Other districts may choose to wait for more information before ratifying a successor contract.

The Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) is open — electronically and virtually — for business and is accepting all filings electronically.  Unfair labor practices, mediation and fact-finding petitions can be filed. All in-person conferences and hearings that were scheduled up through May 29, 2020 were canceled. However, PERC is accepting requests on a case-by-case basis.

Some important dates that districts should be mindful of:

The recently passed the COVID-19 Fiscal Mitigation Act, P.L. 2020, Chapter 19 – signed by Gov. Murphy on April 14, 2020, extends the state’s (not school districts’) fiscal year to Sept. 30, 2020 and requires that no later than May 22, 2020, the New Jersey Treasurer provide a report to update the financial condition of the state, assess current financial conditions and provide a plan for state spending for the three month continuation of New Jersey’s fiscal year.  This new law also requires Gov. Murphy to deliver a revised budget address no later than Aug. 25, 2020.

Some districts may choose to begin negotiating non-economic terms, workday hours, mailbox access, leave time, and other such subjects. But districts should use caution and be reminded that if you agree to certain terms, you cannot go back.  You may need some of those items later on when bargaining salary and health care benefits. To do so, could lead to Unfair Labor Practice allegations and expensive litigation.

Health Care  One of the most hotly contested issues at any bargaining table is health care.  Districts need to know how much health care is going to cost over the next contract cycle, before settling a contract. At the moment, employee health care contributions are still negotiable.

However, districts must closely follow the pending health care legislation S-2273 (now S-2392/A-3963).  This new program would create an entirely new health care structure for school districts.  For example, the law would create a new plan for brand new employees with contributions based on a percentage of salary, not a percentage of the premium like Chapter 78. Other programs will also be available to existing employees. However, this legislation, as currently written, would essentially lock health care benefits at statutory rates until July 1, 2027.  A more detailed description of the legislation and NJSBA’s position on it is available in an article from the March 24 issue of online School Board Notes.

Furloughs  Districts should be mindful of Senate President Steve Sweeney’s proposed furlough program, S-2350, which would allow employers, including school districts, to furlough employees – thus allowing certain employees to collect unemployment benefits from both state and federal unemployment programs. However, the district must reach an agreement to do so with their unions. With the expanded federal unemployment benefits, under this proposal, employees earning a certain annual dollar amount could earn the same compensation under unemployment that they do being paid full salary.  Additionally, employees would continue to accrue pension time and other emoluments.  NJSBA’s governmental relations department is following this proposal and will bring districts the most current developments as they unfold. An update on the bill is available here.

As districts begin or continue to engage in negotiations, boards should direct questions and concerns to their board or labor attorney as well as the NJSBA’s Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.