MANCHESTER — The state’s Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PELRB) has rejected a request from the Manchester teachers union for a cease-and-desist order against the city school district, after dozens of requests from teachers to take Friday off to attend religious services were denied by school administrators.
On April 12, the Manchester Education Association (MEA) filed a Class Grievance on behalf of eight bargaining unit members, “and any other similarly situated employees,” alleging requests for Good Friday off that were denied by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bolgen Vargas violated the collective bargaining agreement.
Attorneys for the school district argued the “unprecedented number of requests” for Friday off — over 50 according to school officials — would have hindered operations at schools across the district.
The union asked the PELRB to issue an immediate cease-and-desist order prohibiting Vargas from denying these days and granting teachers their requested day off.
“Employees denied this leave cannot recapture attending Good Friday services or observing the beginning of Passover,” wrote Lauren Snow Chadwick, staff attorney for NEA-New Hampshire, in the complaint. “The harm is therefore irreparable.”
In its decision denying the union’s request, issued late Thursday, the PELRB wrote, “We find there is insufficient evidence in the record to support a finding of irreparable harm.”
“Essentially, the Association is equating the alleged violation of Article 21 with irreparable harm,” writes PELRB Board alternate chair Peter G. Callaghan. “We believe a stronger showing of, and more detail, about how individual employees will suffer irreparable harm is needed to justify the requested cease-and-desist order.”
“This year we experienced an unprecedented number of requests, more than triple that of three years ago, for personal days off for religious purposes this Friday,” said Vargas in a statement. “Although we approved a significant number of requests, we could not accommodate all without imposing hardship on the operation of our schools. Unfortunately, even though we offered the opportunity for time off during the day to attend religious services, the union filed an unfair labor practice. If this issue went unchecked, I felt it would negatively impact our ability to provide our students with the consistency needed in the schools. I am pleased that common sense has prevailed as the motion brought by the union to the State of NH Public Employee Labor Relations Board was denied.”
Sue Hannan, president of the MEA, said in a statement the union believes “the discriminatory practice of denying a religious holiday, just because it happens to fall on the day before a school vacation, is unjust.”
“We have many members who needed to take elderly parents to services, travel out of state for services, or attend their home place of worship where services take place during the day,” said Hannan. “The district made determinations about the worthiness of the requests, but did not share those metrics with MEA. The district informed MEA that neither Good Friday nor Passover are days where religions require that members do not work. However, according to the contract, the district should have approved the religious day and ask for proof of attendance at services afterward.”
"in all my years in Manchester, I have never experienced this type of massive disregard for people’s religious practices," added Hannan. "And although the Labor Board did not order a cease and desist, our intention is to move forward with the grievance that we filed."
In the complaint, lawyers for the MEA claimed Vargas had no right to deny teachers a one day leave “to observe a religious holiday,” according to a memo sent to school board members and Mayor Joyce Craig from Michelle Couture, UniServ director for NEA-NH.
According to the memo, the teachers union claims Vargas has denied that grievance citing his interpretation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
Specifically, that union claimed Vargas ruled a religious leave day may not be taken under Article XXI A.1. because it in effect extends next week’s April school recess by a day.
“Dr. Vargas denied the leave based on an unsubstantiated belief that the requests were not for religious observation, but rather the employees were extending their April vacation,” writes Couture. “The superintendent did not present any evidence that the requests were not for a religious holiday. The contract does not allow for this kind of denial.”
“Our contract states specifically that members cannot take a personal day before a vacation, but a religious-sick day is acceptable,” said Hannan. “We had discussed this issue with the Superintendent and his team for two months, and they were agreeable to this information. We were told that there were more people this year who had applied for the religious day than in years past, and we understand the district’s issue with that. Unfortunately, the district has not acted appropriately or with empathy on a number of occasions lately. This breaks down the collaborative efforts and the communication ties between us.”
The most recent agreement with the more than 1,100 members of the MEA expired on June 30, 2018. Talks between the district and the union over the last 10 months have failed to produce a new contract.
In denying some requests, Vargas wrote in emails to union members that “approximately 50 employees requested the day off, saying that high a number presented an “undue hardship to the district.”
“Due to an unprecedented number of requests, we will not be able to maintain an orderly operation of the schools to support our students and staff,” wrote Vargas in an email.
MEA officials say they are aware of 13 denied requests and three granted requests, for a total of 16 requests for the day off.
“And even if there were approximately 50 requests, there are 23 work sites in the district which results in an average of two absences per school,” wrote Couture. “MEA is aware of at least one school where only one request was made.”
Vargas offered teachers the opportunity to take two hours on Friday to attend local religious services.
"I am disappointed that teachers will not be able to observe religious holidays even though the contract allows them to do so," said Hannan in a statement. "This is another example of the superintendent changing established and bargained for working conditions and it will negatively impact these religious observers who will miss this opportunity to observe with family and in the manner they choose to do so. I am proud that the MEA filed for immediate action when the superintendent was denying the contractual and religious rights of its members and the MEA will always fight up for its members rights when they are denied. In his grievance denial letter the superintendent stated his solution was that employees may take two hours on April 19 to attend a 'local' religious service if they send the 'information regarding the local service…and the time of said service' to him by the end of the day on April 17. The District is not entitled to determine an employee's religiosity."