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At least 18,000 public union workers see contracts suspended due to virus

Updated April 11, 2020 - 12:11 am

Public union contracts covering more than 18,000 hospital workers, police officers and other government employees have fallen victim to Nevada’s coronavirus outbreak.

Since mid-March, local governments across the Las Vegas Valley have suspended more than 25 such contracts. The move stems from a rarely invoked portion of Nevada law that allows local government officials to suspend the contracts during an emergency.

Other states have similar laws, but none have taken such extreme action.

“Obviously this is an unprecedented situation with a pandemic, but you just don’t see this happening nationally in any other state,” UNLV labor law professor Ruben Garcia said.

It’s virtually guaranteed that private-sector unions will not face similar action, Garcia said. That’s because those unions are covered by federal law, which does not allow for contracts to be suspended.

Not the first time

The contract suspensions affect all unionized employees of Clark County, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, University Medical Center and the Metropolitan Police Department. Government officials say the move was necessary to rapidly change employees’ schedules during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 2,800 people in Nevada and killed more than 100 as of Sunday.

Prior to the pandemic, North Las Vegas in 2012 was the last local government to take such action. Facing a budget deficit estimated at nearly $31 million, the city declared a financial emergency at the time, which it used to invoke the rarely used law allowing suspensions.

The city’s unions sued, arguing that the law did not cover financial emergencies. A Clark County District Court judge reversed the suspensions in January 2014.

Whether the law would cover a pandemic is unclear. It lists examples of emergencies “such as a riot, military action, natural disaster or civil disorder” but doesn’t limit what an emergency is.

“We’ve never seen anything quite like this before,” Garcia said. “We’ve seen floods and other natural disasters, but never a pandemic or biological disaster.”

But for now, officials for some of the region’s largest public unions aren’t rushing to get the suspensions reversed, so long as employees’ schedules remain the only things changed.

The Nevada chapter of the Service Employees International Union stopped threatening to sue Clark County after county lawmakers promised employee protections and ensured that most contract provisions would remain untouched.

Las Vegas Police Managers and Supervisors Association chairman Lt. Will Huddler said the union believes Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo was “well within his right” to temporarily suspend the union’s contract. Metro announced Friday that it will eliminate 112 part-time positions, but they are not represented by a union.

Teamsters Local 14 official Fred Horvath, whose union represents more than 500 North Las Vegas employees, said he believes the coronavirus outbreak likely falls within the state’s definition of an emergency.

“If there was ever a time, this was probably it,” he said. “We are in absolutely uncharted territory in this country. I don’t think anybody had a plan for something of this magnitude.”

Lasting impact

Horvath said he expects the contract suspensions to end as soon as the coronavirus outbreak subsides. However, he said the pandemic could have a lasting impact on organized labor in the state.

That’s because the Legislature in 2015 passed a law allowing local governments to reopen their union contracts if their general fund revenue falls 5 percent or more from the preceding year, and the coronavirus outbreak has already battered Nevada’s tourism-driven economy.

Gov. Steve Sisolak this month told state agencies to plan to cut their fiscal year 2021 budgets between 6 and 14 percent. Clark County Manager Yolanda King has forecast $1.1 billion in lost revenue over the next 12 to 18 months.

“I think we’re going to get there fast,” Horvath said. “This situation has the potential to make the financial crisis (of 2008) look like a picnic.”

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Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @DavidsonLVRJ on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: A prior version of this article misstated the position of Lt. Will Huddler. He is the chairman of the Las Vegas Police Managers and Supervisors Association.

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