Benefits like pensions, health care and fair pay can feel like rights rather than hard-fought wins when workplace challenges are few. But when something happens, and you have to fight, that’s when the value of union representation really hits home. The hope is that most NYSUT members will never have to experience this. But if you do, know that your union has your back.
Sharin Wilson, president of the Wyandanch Administrative Support Association in Suffolk County, Long Island, learned that first-hand on Nov. 19, 2020. Her morning started out like every other workday. But as she got ready to leave for work, she noticed a missed phone message.
“I had a midnight call from the district’s treasurer,” said Wilson. The Wyandanch Union Free School District school board “walked in” an 11th hour resolution the night before abolishing Wilson’s job as a network communications specialist, which coordinates Wyandanch’s technology and information systems.
“The resolution wasn’t posted. No one was notified and it wasn’t on the meeting agenda,” explained Wilson. After nearly 24 years on the job, she was out of work.
Nothing about the move added up. The board’s official justification, that the district needed to make a 20 percent budget reduction, was at odds with a Newsday article that ran the following week trumpeting a $6 million district surplus due to the shutdown, after two years of deficits. And, since Wilson’s position was already fully funded for 2020-21, cutting her job had little or no budgetary impact. Suspecting foul play, Wilson reached out to NYSUT for help.
“This wasn’t the board’s first attempt to abolish her position,” said NYSUT Labor Relations Specialist Renee Wall, who represents the WASA. In 2019, after Wilson and other Wyandanch union leaders endorsed candidates who unsuccessfully ran against the sitting board, inquiries were made about eliminating her job.
“But the superintendent refused, claiming that Wilson’s position was necessary,” said Wall.
The move also raised eyebrows since Wilson wasn’t notified about the district’s layoff plans, either as the impacted employee or as the union president. And, since Wilson alone facilitated remote and hybrid learning, firing her while Wyandanch was still weathering the pandemic didn’t make sense. The layoff resolution also incorrectly listed her position as a network and systems administrator, a position she held six years previously. Once the board realized its mistake, it convened a Nov. 30 meeting specifically to axe the network communications specialist job title, Wilson’s actual position. Proof, Wall explained, that Wilson, rather than her position, was being targeted for elimination.
As a strong union leader, Wilson was an unapologetic thorn in the district’s side. She independently met with the district’s state-appointed fiscal monitor to discuss its financial status on Oct. 22; requested a union release day, and later filed a grievance on behalf of members, on Nov. 2; and attended a contentious labor-management meeting with board representatives, administrators and other union leaders on Nov. 4.
“These were all protected activities, but they put her in the district’s crosshairs,” explained Wall. Wilson received a formal layoff letter on Dec. 12, 2020. The following week, the union filed an improper practice charge with PERB alleging that Wilson lost her job due to her union activity. Virtual hearings on that charge took place May 26 and June 9, 2021. A PERB hearing on a second charge — alleging that administrators illegally carried out bargaining unit work by assuming Wilson’s job duties — was slated to begin later that year. It all came to a close in December when the district offered to settle and negotiations began.
Valentine’s Day 2022 was particularly sweet for Wilson. After 14 long, stressful months she returned to her old job and resumed her position as union president. She received all of her back pay plus longevity for 2021; all her accrued sick and vacation time prior to Dec. 11, 2020; and all applicable years of service credits. Technically, she was “made whole,” but she still carries scars.
“I had to exhaust my savings and incur credit card debt. To be laid off during the pandemic, when finding another job was especially tough, was just horrible,” she said noting that early retirement wasn’t an option since she lacked the time. “The loss of my health insurance was also devastating.”
She persevered through her faith, help from her family and her union.
“It was a hard fight, but NYSUT came out in full force for me,” said Wilson who was appointed a NYSUT SRP ambassador prior to the layoff and plans to share her experience to highlight the importance of union membership. “I’ve had so many people say they’re sorry this happened to me,” she said. “But maybe this will stop the district from doing this to other people.”