CARMEL — When Putnam County Unit activists learned in 2015 that County Executive Mary Ellen Odell planned a sudden, significant hike in health insurance premium contributions for county retirees, they organized a demonstration before the annual county budget hearing to stand up for their retired co-workers.

When they heard a candlelight vigil was planned for the same time and location in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, unit members decided to gather instead at a nearby county park and then join vigil organizers to show our union’s support. Unit activists handed out purple ribbons to our members, in support of domestic violence awareness.

A shocking and upsetting incident that occurred that night — an evening largely devoted to supporting domestic violence victims — had a chilling effect on our members’ right to participate in such union protests.

Putnam County Unit members recently got justice when the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) sided with our union in the incident.

Unacceptable behavior
While CSEA members were handing out the purple ribbons, Nicholas DePerno Jr., the county’s director of constituent services, approached the group and asked who was in charge of the CSEA event.

A member asked DePerno if he’d like a ribbon to wear to show his support for the vigil.

“No, I support domestic violence,” DePerno told the member, in front of numerous other attendees.
DePerno then approached Jane Meunier, who was speaking with shop steward Tom Wargas. Meunier later testified that after waiting for her to finish her conversation with Wargas, DePerno “got in my face, about six inches from my nose, and started shaking me by the collar,” yelling at her to “make sure that this mess is cleaned up.”

Wargas stepped in between Meunier and DePerno to intervene, after which DePerno briefly turned his attention to Wargas.

Meunier also testified that DePerno later began bumping up against her as she headed to the legislature meeting.

Meunier filed a police report and made a workplace violence complaint to the county. Our union filed an improper practice charge with PERB.

An administrative law judge recently ruled that the incident violated the state Public Employees’ Fair Employment Act and ordered a notice be posted on county bulletin boards stating that DePerno must “not interfere with, restrain, coerce [Meunier], or any other CSEA unit members” in exercising their union rights.

The written decision also pointed out that DePerno, who previously worked for the county Sheriff’s Office and whose current job duties include serving as a driver and security for Odell, was not a credible witness based on the vast differences in his testimony on different dates.

“Ultimately, in the end, we won the arbitration, which very clearly and unequivocally pointed out that his behavior was inappropriate,” said Meunier.

“It was traumatizing”
Meunier said she initially tried to put the incident out of her mind as members and retirees prepared to speak on the health insurance issue, but that lasted only so long.

“When it started to sink in, I was extremely traumatized by it,” Meunier said. “As a survivor of domestic violence myself, it was traumatizing to be in that position again.”

Later testimony in the PERB case determined that DePerno confronted the organizers of our union’s event after speaking on the phone with Odell to report the union gathering.

As a labor leader and domestic violence survivor, Meunier said our union’s advocacy following the incident with DePerno was crucial.

“We can’t be afraid to speak up against injustices like these,” Meunier said. “First of all, we don’t deserve to be talked to and treated like that. Whether it’s happening to us or others, we need to be the voice for those people who are afraid. I think that’s what union leadership is really about. It’s about the union family sticking up for each other.”

Southern Region President Billy Riccaldo said the PERB ruling sends an important message about anti-union activity.

“It was chilling to have a high-ranking county official so blatantly and publicly lash out at one of our union’s leaders,” said Riccaldo. “There were people who tried to excuse this man’s behavior as ‘just Nick being Nick,’ but we now have it in writing from a judge that there is no tolerance for this type of behavior.”

— Jessica Ladlee

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Jessica Ladlee

Jessica Ladlee is the communications specialist for CSEA's Southern Region. A graduate of Boston University, Ladlee is an award-winning journalist who worked as a newspaper editor before joining the CSEA communications team in 2004. She is passionate about the opportunities unions provide for people to join the middle class, something her grandmother did as a Rockland County CSEA member over 50 years ago.

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