April 27, 2011

Governor hires labor lawyer

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Gov. Paul LePage has hired an out-of-state attorney to help his administration negotiate new labor contracts for nearly 10,000 state workers.

Louis DiLorenzo, a managing partner with Bond Schoeneck & King, which has offices in New York, Florida and Kansas, will be at the table today when administration officials and leaders of the Maine State Employees Association meet to discuss ground rules for upcoming contract negotiations.

The state will be paying DiLorenzo $295 an hour.

The decision to hire a private attorney for the negotiations is highly unusual but not unprecedented.

The last governor to do so was John McKernan, who hired an attorney to help with contract negotiations in 1991, said Joyce Oreskovich, acting director of the Bureau of Human Resources, which handles labor relations for the state.

She said LePage believes that a labor expert from outside of Maine will bring a national perspective to the union contracts.

"He wants a fresh, outside look at the language," she said of the governor.

Howard Reben, a Portland-based attorney who represents workers and unions, said it's unusual to have lawyers attend negotiation sessions because of the high cost. He said lawyers typically get involved at the end of the talks, to craft contract language.

He said there are plenty of skilled attorneys in Maine who represent employers. He said LePage's decision to hire DiLorenzo will just add costs because the state will pay his travel expenses.

LePage is "squandering money at a time when he is saying the state has to save money," Reben said.

Negotiation sessions typically last all day. In past years, contract negotiations between the state and the Maine State Employees Association have involved as many as 40 sessions.

Contracts for the union's four bargaining units expire on June 30, although the talks could continue after that date.

Oreskovich declined to give details about the state's contract with DiLorenzo and said the contract is exempt from disclosure requirements of Maine's Freedom of Access Act.

DiLorenzo could not be reached for comment. According to his company's website, he represents employers and management in all aspects of labor and employment law.

In 2008, Super Lawyers Magazine named DiLorenzo the top labor and employment law attorney in New York state. Corporate Legal Times described him in 2003 as the "Great Negotiator."

Breena Whitcomb will be the administration's chief negotiator and Cynthia Montgomery, a staff attorney, is also on the administration's negotiation team.

Bruce Hodsdon, president of the state employees association, said he expects DiLorenzo will be a "tough negotiator."

Rod Hiltz, the union's lead negotiator, said he is withholding judgment about DiLorenzo.

He said his union is entering the talks in a defensive position, looking to protect the existing wage and benefit structure. He noted that state workers have had their pay frozen for the last two years.

"We are going to hope for the best and plan for the worst. That's how I feel about these negotiations," he said.

Oreskovich declined to comment about the administration's goals in the contract talks, saying she doesn't want to negotiate in public.

LePage's proposed two-year state budget would continue a merit pay freeze that began two years ago, and reinstate a freeze on pay increases related to years of service.

Besides pay, negotiations could include discussions about vacation benefits, sick pay, job classifications and grievance procedures.

The two sides won't bargain over retirement or health care benefits for employees.

Lawmakers decide the retirement benefits. LePage wants state workers and teachers in the state retirement plan to increase their contribution to the system from 7.65 percent of their pay to 9.65 percent.

For health insurance, the State Employee Health Commission sets the benefit plan, and the employees' share is governed by state law. Health insurance for spouses and dependents is a subject of bargaining.

Tom Bell -- 699-6261

tbell@maientoday.com

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