- Special Projects
Honolulu taxpayers owe more than $100,000 in fees and interest after city officials repeatedly ignored court and arbitration orders in disputes with a major public employees union.
United Public Workers is in the midst of several grievances with the city relating to pay for garbage collectors and other union members. For the past year, city officials missed court-ordered and arbitrator-imposed deadlines to cut checks and provide documents, and ignored subpoenas from UPW to attend hearings, records show.
That sent cases back to arbitration and court multiple times, racking up additional fees and interest to be paid by the city.
The total price tag for the city’s inaction is unclear but at a minimum exceeds $100,000. It may climb higher now that the union has filed a collective bargaining complaint with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board.
The UPW’s bargaining agreement with the city sets out a process for settling disputes, which includes filing grievances that are adjudicated by an arbitrator.
Last year, arbitrator Thomas Cestare heard a case several times stemming from a 2015 dispute involving green waste collection.
“This is the FOURTH Arbitration Decision and Award on essentially the same issue,” Cestare wrote in a ruling issued Dec. 29, 2018. “It is simply inexplicable that it has come to this.”
“This is not a complicated case and it should have been finished long ago,” he wrote. “It is simply madness to waste taxpayer money to continue in this fashion.”
Cestare wrote that the city presented no defense and has “not offered any coherent explanation for their failure to comply with various arbitration decisions and court orders.”
That was in December. UPW then filed a complaint April 26 with the state Labor Relations Board, citing that case and two more grievances in which the city had missed deadlines or failed to provide documentation.
If the board finds in favor of UPW, the complaint could cost the city another $50,000 in penalties plus more money to cover attorney’s fees and other costs.
No one involved in the cases is talking about them: Ernest Nomura, deputy corporation counsel who is handling the grievances for the city, declined an interview request, as did UPW attorney Herbert Takahashi. The union’s director did not respond to messages and Cestare declined to comment.
The city filed a memo Monday in response to the Labor Relations Board complaint. The city contends that the board lacks jurisdiction because the union grievances are still pending.
The union’s Labor Relations Board complaint stems from three grievances that UPW brought against the city over the past decade. A 2009 grievance contended the city wrongly denied temporary supervisory assignments to street sweepers. The case is pending appeal.
A 2013 grievance alleged that the city improperly denied overtime to bulky item trash collectors. The case is still in arbitration.
And in a 2015 grievance, the union alleged the city was denying records necessary to arbitrate a related case in which green waste collectors said they were denied overtime.
In all three cases, court records show UPW struggled to access documents or receive money from the city despite orders from arbitrators and judges, leading to successively higher costs.
In April, a state judge approved UPW’s request for more than $9,400 in attorney’s fees and costs associated with its efforts to force the city to comply with a court order in the 2013 bulky item pickup case.
In the 2009 street sweeper case, a state judge awarded UPW more than $50,000 in attorney’s fees and costs this year after the union won a motion to enforce a 2018 court order.
Last summer, the city was charged more than $30,000 in attorney’s fees for the 2015 case after the union spent extra time trying to enforce an arbitration order. At the time, Cestare, the arbitrator, wrote that he purposely delayed his decision to give the city time to oppose the attorney’s fees, but the city never filed anything challenging the fees.
A transcript of the Dec. 17 arbitration hearing in the green waste dispute provides a glimpse of the arbitrator’s mounting frustration with the city.
Nomura, the city’s attorney, said during the hearing he had been told the city had provided UPW with the necessary documents. But the discussion revealed he wasn’t sure whether the documents provided were the same ones the union was seeking.
“Well how is it not possible to comply with (this order), some of these things are pretty easy?” Cestare said to Nomura at one point, according to a transcript of the meeting filed by UPW in court. “I mean, they really are.”
“I’m embarrassed for the city. And I’m embarrassed for this whole procedure because it’s made a mockery of the whole collective bargaining relationship here.” — Arbitrator Thomas Cestare
“I fully appreciate your — and I certainly appreciate Mr. Takahashi’s frustrations as well,” Nomura replied, referring to UPW’s attorney. “But that is the universe I live with.”
Cestare criticized Nomura’s lack of response to an email proposing moving the case from arbitration to mediation.
“I’m embarrassed for the city. And I’m embarrassed for this whole procedure because it’s made a mockery of the whole collective bargaining relationship here,” Cestare said.
He told Nomura he respects many city employees, “But to have no response from anything is just crazy.” He urged Nomura to bring city employees to the arbitration proceedings.
“That is the universe I live with.” — Ernest Nomura, city attorney
“Have someone come down saying we think we sent it because of this, or those items don’t exist, or we can’t get the checks out because of this reason,” Cestare said.
He asked if the city had made a business decision to simply not comply with anything related to the case. Nomura said no.
“The City will do whatever it takes to pay off, whatever amounts it owes, but I just need time to get that process completed,” Nomura said, adding that additional fines don’t help.
Nomura lost that argument. After the December hearing, Cestare fined the city another $25,000 by Feb. 15 plus $1,000 per day starting Feb. 16 for every day of noncompliance.
There are upsides to being a nonprofit as we carry out our public-service mission. We don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee, or clutter our articles with ads. But this also means that reader support sustains every aspect of what we do. Without you, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that. By donating, you’re supporting everyone on staff—and allowing unbiased, factual, honest journalism to thrive. If you value our work, will you make a tax-deductible donation today?