More than 40 Miami-Dade County public employees are collecting $2.65 million-plus in salaries from taxpayers so far this year — but they don’t have to do their county jobs, the Miami Herald has learned.
The 42 employees are excused from their work duties to serve as union representatives, and they cannot be fired for not doing county work under Miami-Dade’s agreements with the 10 unions representing workers.
On paper, the exempt union workers hold a variety of positions, from six-figure police and firefighters to lesser-paid public-transit workers.
The Herald examined the extent of publicly funded union representatives after newly elected Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera said he could not fire a property evaluator who wasn’t showing up to work despite his $86,238 annual salary.
“I was just trying to stand up for the taxpayers,” said Lopez-Cantera, who disagrees with the exemption practice. “The unions should make do with their own revenue. If they do expect taxpayers to subsidize their operations, then there should accountability.”
Lopez-Cantera wants to sue the county to obtain more control over his office. He wants the County Commission’s approval Tuesday to hire an outside attorney.
Without one, Lopez-Cantera cannot ask a judge to determine whether voters intended for the property appraiser to be mostly independent when they made the post an elected position five years ago.
He and the county are both represented by County Attorney Robert Cuevas.
Cuevas’ office said last month that Lopez-Cantera should not proceed with the termination of the employee, Robert Akras, who would not give Lopez-Cantera weekly reports about his union activities. The county attorney said Akras did not have to justify his work for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 199, which represents about 9,000 of the county’s general government employees.
The county’s three-year labor contracts do not expire until next year.
Local 199 Administrator Jeanette Lebrecht defended the longstanding policy as effective, saying it ensures workers are treated fairly and that personnel matters do not become costlier legal proceedings.
“We’ve had a very, very good working relationship with the county,” she said, noting that union representatives attend disciplinary meetings with employees, shepherd grievances and regularly meet with administrators.
“We’re very much aware that these people are county employees and they provide public services,” Lebrecht said. “We want to make sure county citizens get what they deserve, but not at the risk of abusing employees.”
Other large Florida counties do not provide similar perks, although none matches Miami-Dade’s nearly 26,000 county employees.
Broward, with about 5,200 employees, does not excuse any employees on a full-time basis to serve as union officials, said Kevin Kelleher, director of Broward’s human resources division. Union representatives may conduct labor activities as needed.
Orlando’s Orange County, with about 7,000 employees, has only one union with a designated representative allowed to work up to full-time for the unit, county spokesman Steve Triggs said. Workers in the county’s five other unions share pooled time to conduct their business.
Miami-Dade’s 42 exempt union workers collected more than $2.65 million in salaries between January and June. They also received separate pension and health-insurance benefits.
Three employees — a fire captain and two police lieutenants — each make more than $100,000 a year. The fire captain is president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1403.
A majority of the employees work for the Transport Workers Union Local 291, which has been granted additional union stewards in a bid to tackle high employee absenteeism.
Miami-Dade also allows additional union stewards to engage in labor activities on an as-needed basis. Records show 135 employees have been excused part-time to work for their unions, some for as little as eight hours and one for as many as 520 hours — the equivalent of 65 eight-hour work days.