Last December, state lawmakers passed Chapter 501 (S. 7749) — The Protection of People with Special Needs Act — that establishes the Justice Center to protect people who rely on professional care to overcome physical, cognitive and other challenges.
NYSUT members who work at Special Act, 4201 and 853 Schools and non-profit organizations that serve the 270,000 students and adults with developmental disabilities and other conditions that require special services now fall under the new agency's jurisdiction.
"The thousands of NYSUT members employed in these facilities are dedicated, hardworking employees who face an ever-shrinking state budget that continues to place them in a position of working short-handed, forced overtime and extra shifts," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue.
The Justice Center is required to develop a "Code of Conduct" for workers who have regular contact with vulnerable persons, according to McKinney's Summary, the official publication of New York state law. All direct support workers are to follow these ethical standards and will be held accountable with enforcement consistent with appropriate collective bargaining agreements.
The Justice Center also has the responsibility to receive, review, and investigate all "reportable incidents involving vulnerable persons," according to McKinney's.
The center will contain two separate units, one responsible for the prosecution of criminal matters and one for the resolution of non-criminal matters.
Other duties include:
• overseeing implementation of procedures for tracking, investigating and monitoring correction actions, and
• maintaining a register of individuals who have committed serious acts of abuse (Staff Exclusion List).
What does this mean for members who work with students and adults with developmental disabilities?
Here are some steps to take:
- Check your contract to make sure you know your rights if you are called in by the administration for an allegation of misconduct. If you don't know the person who contacted you, ask for their name, their title, who they work for and the purpose of the meeting. Tell the individual you want to have your union representative present at the meeting.
- Immediately notify your local president to ask for union representation at the meeting.
- Ask your local president to contact the NYSUT regional office and speak to the Labor Relations Specialist assigned to the local.
- If you are denied union representation, tell the investigator (administration or Justice Center) that you want to have an attorney present. Again, take down name, agency and title of the person denying your request. Write everything down that occurs and be as accurate as possible.
Protection for workers
Earlier this summer, a NYSUT member at St. Mary's School for the Deaf in Buffalo was asked to meet with Justice Center investigators.
Because Teacher's Association President Diane Gonzalez was closely monitoring the situation, the member was afforded the right to a union representative.
A similar situation developed at the United Center Employees Association in Suffolk County. The local contract has language regarding the rights of members to have union representation at all disciplinary or investigatory meetings.
However, local President Judith Thompson said it is an ongoing battle with the administration to honor that part of the contract.
"We have told our members that they need to ask what the meeting is about and that they need to request union representation," Thompson said.
The statute and implementing regulations include repeated references to collective bargaining agreements.
"NYSUT will work to ensure that contractual protections are enforced on behalf of our members," Donahue said.