QUEENSBURY — When Michael Brunelle was hired, he was supposed to be a laborer at the town-owned Pine View Cemetery.
Then his boss asked all three employees to consider taking training to run the crematorium, in case they were needed on busy days. All three agreed.
Shortly after that, Cemetery Superintendent Connie Goedert spoke to the town’s labor attorney about forcing Brunelle to work every Saturday, running the crematorium alone. The attorney said she could change his schedule if she spoke to the union first, so she did.
That’s when Brunelle found out.
He has four school-aged children and spends Saturdays with his eldest son, who is on a travel sports team. He didn’t want to run a crematorium to begin with, and he especially doesn’t want to work Saturdays.
In the private sector, that would likely be the end of it: he’d find another job and the cemetery superintendent would advertise the changed job to find someone who wanted to do it.
But the town employees are unionized, and changing someone’s work week is a contract change.
So 17 union members showed up Monday night to support Brunelle as the Town Board voted to change his work week.
The board approved the change by a vote of 4-1, with board member George Ferone casting the only “no” vote.
He said he was concerned by the number of union members opposing the change.
“When I was in management, it was always easier to get everyone to buy in,” he said.
Other board members agreed, saying they were worried they’d spend a great deal defending the decision if the union files a grievance. But they said the Tuesday-Saturday shift made sense and should be approved.
Currently, the cemetery receives bodies late on Fridays that don’t get cremated until Monday. They are supposed to be cremated within 48 hours, Goedert said.
“Take into consideration the families and their loved ones, to be waiting longer” for cremains, she said. “Of course nobody likes working Saturday. We have to do it to keep it at a (cremation) rate families can afford.”
The employees suggested either having the cremater work Tuesday-Saturday, leaving the other three employees to work together to run the crematorium on Mondays or set up a rotating weekend shift.
But Goedert said Brunelle was chosen because he has the least seniority. In addition, she said, it would be cheaper to have Brunelle working at regular pay than to pay overtime on a rotation. Brunelle would also be paid more on Saturdays because he would be working “out of grade,” earning about $40 more than his regular pay. That’s about $100 less than the cost of overtime for the cremater. After holiday pay is taken into consideration, the change would save the town more than $10,000 a year.
Employees noted that the cemetery “isn’t losing money” and would bring in about $1,500 in four cremations while paying a cremater $300, including overtime, for the day’s work. Brunelle would be paid about $200 for that same day’s work.
However, it’s never certain how many bodies will need to be cremated.
And in any case, it’s better business to be open every Saturday, said board member Jennifer Switzer.
“The cemetery is run like a business. We’re taking people’s money and offering them a service,” she said.
Board member Tony Metivier added that employees in the private sector would not be able to demand that their work week stay the same.
“It’s for the good of your employer. If you have to make sacrifices, so be it,” he said. “I’ve had to make a lot of changes in my life for my employer. If you don’t like it, there are other jobs.”
Town Supervisor John Strough also supported the change, telling the rest of the board that their job is to make “these hard decisions.”
“Yes, the Town Board is concerned about the employees, their health and welfare,” he said. “But we have to listen to our department heads. ...You have to weigh what is in the best interest of the town.”
Union members may fight the action. President Sue Sheehan said the contract requirement to “confer” over schedule changes was not met by merely telling the union about the changes.
“Our contract is being spit on,” she said to the Town Board.
Brunelle isn’t certain whether he’ll stay at the job. It would essentially halve the time he can spend with his kids, since they’ll be in school on his Mondays off. His children are 8, 11, 13 and 16.
“I don’t know,” he said when he was asked what he’ll do now that the schedule change has been approved. “It’s something I’ve got to think about.”