Is your municipality training new hires to become certified electrical line workers, only to lose them to major utility companies such as NYSEG or Rochester Gas & Electric after they become certified? This is not an uncommon situation in New York. Towns, villages, and other municipalities invest $10,000 to $40,000 per year, or more, depending on the number of trainees, into multi-year training programs, sometimes up to four years, for their employees to become licensed journeymen electrical line workers, only to see them jump ship to NYSEG, National Grid, RGE, or other gas and electric companies that can, and often do, pay significantly higher wages and benefits. When that happens, the smaller towns and villages have to start over and bring in new trainees, risking the same issue popping up after the trainees get certified.
Municipalities that end up in that cycle are forced to absorb tremendous training costs year over year and still wind up unable to meet the staffing needs of their citizens—a dynamic that is felt year-round but especially in the winter months when heavy snow and blustery conditions create electric line issues. Because of this dynamic, municipalities are unable to recoup their investment in new line workers as the cycle continues.
As a Mayor or Village Manager, it may fall upon you or your public works staff to maintain adequate staffing of trained and certified line workers to meet the physical demands of providing energy to your citizens in an economical and efficient manner.
If drafted and executed properly, employment contracts with new hires and trainees can, at most, help keep your line workers employed with your municipality, or, at least, be bound to reimburse training costs if they leave throughout the training period and beyond, so you can recoup your investment.
Conditional Offers of Employment and contracts for a “term of years” have been held to be enforceable in New York courts of law. The contracts have to be reasonable in scope but can bind your line worker trainees to, for example, reimburse training costs for an initial contract term of four years during which your trainers administer state-required training each year, and then for an additional four years, so that your public works department can recover the municipality’s investment in putting a certified line worker in the field. At any point during the eight-year commitment, the new line worker will have to reimburse training costs if he or she jumps ship for more money at RG&E, National Grid, etc.
A municipality outside Rochester, NY, was having difficulties keeping trained and certified electrical line workers. The defendant line worker, who had signed a “conditional offer of employment” when he started four years prior, resigned a few months after his fourth year, which coincided with the completion of his training and certification as a journeyman line worker. One of the conditions in his employment contract was to reimburse the Village for training costs if the worker left during his initial four-year commitment AND an additional four-year commitment after he was certified. While some newly-certified line workers resign within just a few days of certification, this worker resigned eight months after certification, went to work as a certified line worker for a large utility company for a significant increase in pay, and declined to reimburse the Village for training costs, claiming, among other defenses, the training was involuntary.
The Village filed a complaint and moved for summary judgment to recoup its training costs, which were over $20,000. The new line worker hired counsel and asserted a number of contractual and equitable defenses. However, at the summary judgment stage of the litigation, the Village prevailed on certain employment contract principles, which included the enforceability of a reimbursement provision that was valid in a term of years contract, which was also held to be valid. As a result, the line worker was court-ordered to reimburse the Village over $20,000 in training costs. Other, similar cases have been litigated successfully for this same municipality when the new line workers resigned for higher-paying jobs with larger utility companies.
The case illustrated above is real, and it is not uncommon. While it’s certainly possible that a slightly different fact scenario, or even the same fact scenario in a different jurisdiction, might achieve a different result, it is important to note that such conditional offers of employment and terms of years contracts are enforceable as a matter of law, and municipalities can improve their bottom line with favorable case law that can help them mitigate their losses of training costs in an uneven playing field with the larger utility companies.
Rick Brister is a Senior Counsel in Tully Rinckey PLLC’s Rochester office. Rick focuses his practice on civil litigation and has represented municipalities in union contract negotiations, employment disputes, police officer terminations, and general advisory roles in municipal legal matters. He can be reached at email@example.com or at (888) 224-9330.