HARTFORD, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Last week, the town of Hartford declared a state of emergency, as Thursday night snowfall butted up against a problem. The small Washington County town usually employs four people in its highway department, who keep roads plowed and safe when the snow comes. This winter, the town is down to two – and faces a problem far bigger than a single snowstorm.

The town highway department has spent the last three and a half years negotiating for a pay raise. The town’s last proper contract with the department ended in 2019, and came with an $18.50 hourly rate. Since then, employees say that the rate has remained unchanged, while other towns in the county have supplied employees with regular raises.

“All the towns around us are well over $20,” said David Sweezey, a former town highway employee who left at the end of last year to seek higher-paying work. “(Highway Supervisor Greg Brown) told the town I need to make $22 or leave. I have three kids at home, I need to make a living, and it didn’t look like they were going to budge.”

Sweezey, who now works in waste management, is one of two town employees to make the tough choice to walk away in protest of the lack of a pay raise. He’s been there through the whole negotiation process, and says that the town was against giving workers any kind of raise from the start of the conversation.

Brown echoed that sentiment, from the perspective of an advocate for the workers. He recalls telling the town board when his two former workers were signaling they had had enough of circular conversation and unmoving pay.

“My main guy Jeff had been telling me for months that he was leaving on the 18th of December,” Brown said. “I kept telling the town, ‘Jeff’s leaving.’ When Jeff walked out the door, I don’t know if the supervisor doesn’t care or what, but he didn’t seem to understand how much they’d be losing.”

Hartford road workers cover about 100 lane miles in a given winter. When possible, the squad likes to take care of plowing for the local rescue squad and school district, with some help from neighbors Fort Ann and Argyle. With two employees gone and one more out with an injury, Brown only has one employee to do the job of four. At least once recently, Hartford Central School District had to close for the day because the town department lacked the manpower to deal with ice around the buildings.

In December, the department sent a letter out around the Hartford community, stating employees’ demands of $22.50 an hour. The letter breaks down what an annual raise would look like if running at the same rates already given to other town employees – 2% in 2020, 2021 and 2022, and 3% in 2023.

A letter from highway workers in the town of Hartford, N.Y., asking for higher wages.

The letter also alleges that the town has stated that highway employees must give something up in order to get any kind of raise. That proposition was echoed by Sweezey, who recalled the town proposing the elimination of Presidents Day and another holiday as paid days off. At the same time, Sweezey said that he and another employee were owed $7,500 in back pay.

“The town didn’t want to give us any of it,” he said. “We offered to take a cut in it if they would raise the wage. They still wouldn’t.”

Union dues

Hartford Town Supervisor Dana Haff says that the current impasse is between the town and the union representing the department. The department is represented by Albany-based Teamsters Local 294, which steps in for arbitration, contract issues, and wage disputes – all three of which could describe Hartford’s present situation.

“The town has made any number of offers, but typically has to nudge them to respond. The last offer to them was made on Jan. 5, but they have not responded. Our attorney, John Aspland, has even complained to the assigned arbitrator about their nonresponsiveness,” said Haff.

Aspland declined to comment when reached in December.

Haff also references the department’s union status when pointing out ways in which it’s different from its neighbors. The Hartford highway department operates four-day weeks, 10 hours a day, even in winter. That’s fairly standard for towns in the summer, but most other teamster unions in the region switch to five 8-hour days once daylight gets scarce.

Brown and Sweezey both made reference to Haff blaming the union for the state of affairs. Brown said that Haff pointed to the union in recent meetings, and failed to enter executive session in order to start a more thorough dialogue with the highway department. Sweezey was more direct.

“I personally think it’s all an attack,” he said. “Dana is trying to dissolve the union.”

Haff recently performed a highway wage comparison between Hartford and five other towns that neighbor it – Granville, Hebron, Argyle, Kingsbury, and Fort Ann. The average highway employee wage between them is $20.82 per hour. He says that the town’s most recent offer is more than that amount, but that the union has not yet responded.

Brown says that the only number that high he’s seen is an offer of up to $21 per hour for new, part-time workers to come in and fill the current gaps. That number was never offered to the two workers who walked.

“Six months ago, Jeff would have stayed for $21 an hour and been happy,” Brown said. “They talk about taxes and different things, but there comes a point where you have to think about people, and care about people.”

Even if that number wasn’t offered to the full-timers, at least one of them is managing to make something off of it. After leaving, Sweezey stayed to help part-time – and ended up making more than when he was full-time, between that and the beef farm he owns. At this point, though, it would be too late to come back for $21 an hour or more.

“It comes down to literally pennies for four guys, if you look at a budget. We weren’t even asking for more time off,” he said. “At this point, the bridge is burned for me. It’s an election year. You’re going to see some town people run and get elected, because everyone knows that it isn’t okay.”

Meeting matters

Brown said Hartford’s recent town board meetings have been a hotbed for the issue. It’s been a pivotal place for him and his workers to speak up, and ensure that their neighbors present know what’s going on.

The last meeting of the Hartford Town Board was held on Jan. 12. NEWS10 requests for minutes from that meeting were answered with assurances that the minutes would be shared on the town website. As of Thursday, the minutes had yet to be posted.

At the Dec. 13, 2022 meeting, Haff read a statement summarizing the ongoing negotiations between the town and the union, which summarized many of the same points he made when speaking to NEWS10. The meeting minutes quote Councilman Keith Harrington as supporting the highway workers for distributing the community letter that put the pay issue into the public eye. The minutes then quote over a dozen town residents speaking up in support of the work that the department does.

“There came one point at a recent meeting where a gentleman asked the town supervisor what he was going to do, and the supervisor said he couldn’t talk about it, and just sat there, silent,” Brown said. “I raised my own hand, and kept it there for probably 8 to 10 minutes as the board answered other folks’ questions. A guy behind me leaned forward and said, ‘They’re just glossing right over you!'”

The date for the February meeting of the Hartford Town Board was not public as of Thursday.