Court Rules on Union Officials being Paid for Release Time by Public Entities for Private Purposes.

Posted on Thursday, October 17th, 2019.

Full release time for union officials while receiving full pay from a public entity may violate the prohibition of public funds being used for private purposes.  A New Jersey court in Rozenblit v. Lyles, 2019 WL 3938349, at *1 (App Div. 2019) two Jersey City residents who challenged the Constitutionality of a provision in the collective negotiations agreement between the Jersey City Education Association (“JCEA”) and the Jersey City Board of Education (“Board”), which required the Board “to pay the salaries and benefits of two teachers selected by the members of the JCEA to serve as “president … and his /her designee,” and to allowed them to devote all of their work-time to the business and affairs of the JCEA.” Rozenblit v. Lyles, 2019 WL 3938349, at *1 (App Div. 2019). Some public sector representatives have release time provisions allowing them to attend to union duties instead of being assigned work by their employer.

In their complaint, the residents alleged that such an agreement violated the New Jersey Constitution, which expressly provides: “No donation of land or appropriation of money shall be made by the State or any county or municipal corporation to or for the use of any society, association or corporation whatever,” as well as N.J.S.A. 18A:30-7 which authorizes the Board “…to fix either by rule or by individual consideration, the payment of salary in cases of absence not constituting sick leave, or to grant sick leave over and above the minimum sick leave as defined in this chapter or allowing days to accumulate over and above those provided for in section…” Id. at *4

In analyzing the language of the statute, the court focused on the operative words “in cases of absence.” The court held that the statute authorizes the Board to grant additional paid leave solely in cases of “absence,” and does not contain any provisions that permits two teachers to be paid to report to work and only perform duties related to their union positions as President and designee.  The court noted that the other paid leaves permitted by the union contract, such as sabbaticals or leave to attend the funeral of a colleague’s family member, provide reciprocal benefits for both the school and teacher by giving teachers opportunity to enhance their skills and/or increase morale, and return to work refreshed and renewed. Id. at *5 Paying teachers full time salaries and benefits for performing solely union work, the court found, only benefitted the teachers union.  Finally, the union did not assert, and the court did not find, any other statute or law permitting a School Board to use public funds exclusively for the purpose of another organization.

While Rozenblitz specifically addresses Title 18A, public employers should be aware that reviewing courts could apply the reasoning in this case to any full time “release time” positions that may currently exist within the context of police, firefighter or civilian public sector union employees. Public employers therefore should not agree to fully fund any release time positions that authorize employees to perform solely union work.

Trimboli & Prusinowski, LLC devotes its practice to representing businesses and public entities regarding labor and employment issues.  We are happy to review this and other issues with any private business or public entity.

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