Renewed push to unionize probate court employees in Labor Committee

A bill to classify probate court employees as state employees and allow them to unionize for collective bargaining purposes is currently under consideration by the Labor and Public Employees Committee.

An Act Strengthening the Probate Court System would affect roughly 316 probate court employees in 54 probate courts and six regional children’s probate courts.

Currently, probate court employees are considered employees of the probate judge, who is elected every four years. Judges and employees receive retirement benefits through the state but pay more for healthcare costs than state employees.

If unionized, the probate court employees would be allowed to collectively bargain for wages, benefits and work conditions and have the ability to file grievances. A similar bill in 2015 estimated the cost to be anywhere from $400,000 to $1 million depending on how probate court employees were organized.

Union officials from AFSCME, SEIU and AFL-CIO testified in support of the bill, along with probate court workers who say they should be counted as state employees and allowed to collectively bargain.

Probate court employees who submitted testimony expressed concerns over job security and pointed out that superior court clerks and probate court administrators are considered state employees.

 “We pay more for our benefits and receive smaller hourly wages than similar Connecticut State Employees,” according to testimony submitted by Naugatuck Probate Court clerks. “Probate Clerk’s work ‘at the pleasure of the Judge,’ which in turn means that every election our job is at stake. We work hard every day, despite having no job security, and working without protection.”

AFL-CIO President Sal Luciano testified that probate court employees were paid less than similar state employees and can lose their jobs if the probate judge loses an election or retires. He also noted “they can be fired for speaking up.”

The bill, however, was opposed by the Council of Small Towns and the Office of the Probate Court Administrator.

Probate Court Administrator Beverly K. Streit-Kefalas wrote the bill would “impair an elected official’s ability to hire and supervise his or her direct staff,” that the fiscal implications “will be significant” and that “the bill leaves numerous critical issues unanswered.” 

Betsy Gara, executive director of COST, wrote “municipalities have a tremendous stake in ensuring that the probate court system remains financially viable so that towns are not required to incur any additional costs or provide with additional in-kind contributions to support the system.” 

Municipalities currently pay for office equipment, management systems and insurance for probate courts “all at considerable cost to the municipalities within the district,” Gara wrote.

Probate courts handles trusts and estates, conservatorships, children’s issues, intellectual disability issues and mental health commitments. 

Connecticut’s probate court system underwent a major restructuring in 2009 to avoid financial collapse and to bring uniform pay rates and benefits to probate employees. The restructuring saved the state $10 million over two years and kept the probate court system operating. 

The last time this issue came before the Labor Committee was in 2017. The bill received minimal public hearing comment and was not voted on by the Labor Committee. 

Patricia Saviano, president of Connecticut Association of Probate Clerks, wrote in 2017 that less than 15 percent of probate court employees favored unionization and noted that CAPC was not part of the effort. 

“We can only assume it is being pursued from a source outside the probate court system or by individuals in their own capacity,” Saviano said. 

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