- Associated Press - Friday, October 24, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - An estimated 3,200 union workers are expected to be reimbursed for years of meal expenses that were improperly cut by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration, both sides said Friday.

After lengthy negotiations with the largest state employees’ union, the Department of Administrative Services agreed last week to refund meal reimbursements dating back to 2011, according to a settlement obtained by The Associated Press.

Department spokesman Caleb Hunter said the deal with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is expected to cost $1.49 million - the amount the cut had saved. The state already reimbursed members of two other unions nearly $250,000 in meal reimbursements under agreements reached last year.

Hunter said 3,200 employees are expected to be eligible for the settlement, which covers meals between August 2011 and February 2014. A union leader said the number could reach 3,500.

AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan said some employees who traveled every day could be eligible for payments exceeding $2,500. Those expected to receive the most include Department of Transportation motor vehicle enforcement officers and construction workers, he said.

Homan said payments will be calculated based on the amount of meal expenses employees received in 2010. Employees will be able to challenge the calculations in appeals to Homan and DAS Director Janet Phipps. Checks could be mailed in February.

Homan said he was glad to have the settlement but still angry about the cut, calling it “a calculated attempt to steal money out of the pockets of hard-working state employees.”

“This governor has an opinion that, ‘well, we’ll do what we want to do and then let the unions fight to get it back’,” he said.

The administration and union still have disputes over whether employees hired after August 2011 and those who work for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship will qualify for reimbursements. Those disputes will go to arbitration if they cannot be settled, Homan said.

DAS announced on Aug. 1, 2011, that employees who travel would generally not be eligible for meal reimbursements unless they stayed overnight. Previously, employees who traveled before 6 a.m. qualified for breakfast and lunch, while those who returned after 7 p.m. qualified for dinner. That policy has been reinstated, with expenses capped at $5 for breakfast, $8 for lunch and $15 for dinner.

Three unions filed grievances, claiming the cut was illegal under their contracts since it removed a longstanding benefit without negotiation. They pointed to workers who couldn’t bring their meals due to long travel days.

An arbitrator sided with the Iowa United Professionals - representing social workers, scientists and other employees - in January 2013. The state soon reached settlements with IUP and another representing police officers. But emails released to the Legislature’s Government Oversight committee show state officials failed to reach a similar deal with AFSCME even after a DAS lawyer warned in April 2013 that “the likelihood of success is not high” if the issue went to arbitration.

Homan walked away from talks over a $1.2 million proposed settlement with then-DAS lawyer Ryan Lamb in January, complaining that officials were refusing to explain how the reimbursements would be calculated. “My membership has suffered long enough, they deserve better,” Homan wrote, taking the issue to arbitration.

Homan said Friday that Lamb and then-DAS Director Michael Carroll - who was fired by Gov. Terry Branstad for his role in a secret settlement scandal this year - “had no desire to resolve this.” He said talks resumed after Carroll was replaced by Phipps.

DAS spokesman Hunter called the settlement “in the best interest of Iowa taxpayers.”

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