At Tuesday night's Borough Council meeting, several crossing guards came to voice their objection to council looking into alternatives to the guards receiving unemployment benefits.
At the previous meeting on March 13, councilmembers discussed several alternatives to paying the benefit, including outsourcing the process by using an outside company or hiring the guards full-time and distributing pay over the entire year (the way many teachers are paid), so they still receive a check during the summer months. Mayor Patricia Quattrocchi referred the matter to the Police Committee made up of Councilmembers Timothy Hak, Victor DeFillipo and Sara Todisco, to review and discuss with Police Chief Bruce Underhill.
"If we pay into unemployment we can file and claim and collect our unemployment during the summer even though we're seasonal," said crossing guard Rosemarie Snow. Snow says she called the governor's office and the unemployment office to verify that the guards are able to collect unemployment.
The crossing guards are hired as seasonal employees for the 180 days while school is in session and work about four hours a day. Under state law, even seasonal workers are entitled to unemployment benefits. Crossing guards make about $13 per hour, according to Garwood Police Chief Bruce Underhill.
Several other guards asked why the council was discussing alternatives to unemployment pay in the first place.
Councilwoman Sara Todisco explained that the matter was first brought to the finance committee's attention by Garwood Chief Financial Officer Sandy Bruns and Business Administrator Christina Ariemma as an area where, with rising unemployment costs, other towns have made changes. "This was a recommendation by the Business Administrator and CFO for us to look into this," said Todisco. "The committee is still discussing this, nothing has been decided, but we do appreciate you coming and speaking tonight."
Snow also made an unspecific comment about the guards, saying "Our responsibility is the children first. We don't want any more abuse as a crossing guard. If anybody on council disagrees with us, we have the chief right here, go to him."
What Snow appeared to be referring to was Councilman Jim Mathieu's comments at the March 13 meeting and his subsequent conversations with some of the crossing guards.
At the March 13 meeting, Mathieu said, "It's scandalous to have crossing guards filing for unemployment when it's a seasonal job. That's the kind of waste and abuse that drives people nuts."
However, since the meeting, Mathieu claims he made a point to talk to several crossing guards and collect their opinions on the issue before voting on the matter. Mathieu claims he was then threatened with arrest by Garwood Police Chief Bruce Underhill, as guards complained that Mathieu was "harassing them."
Linda Knierium was one of the guards Mathieu chatted with. She told council she'd never been questioned before while at her post, though she did not say whether she felt Mathieu harassed her.
"I was taken back because no one has come to my corner before Mr. Mathieu did and was asking about the unemployment benefits," said Knierium.
Mathieu addressed her comments at length saying, "What I wanted to do was going to work, talk to two crossing guards per day, get up a little early, just to get your opinion. I don’t want information on who filed. We had a very nice conversation, I thought, and I was very surprised to hear later that you felt intimidated by me."
Mathieu continued, adding, "I told my wife that night that I think I’m against the unemployment benefits, but I talked to two really nice people today and it’s going to make it hard to vote that way. I want to hear your side of the story. Particularly if you disagree with me. ... If you see me and say 'Jim I really don’t want to talk right now,' say that to me. But there are some high level employees here that really like to control access from the councilmembers to the employees....We may develop relationships with each other and they don’t want that. You want to arrest me, go ahead, but I’m not going to stop talking to my constituents. This town is too good for that."
After his response, Knierium told Patch she felt what the Councilman had to say "made good sense," but didn't feel it was appropriate for him to try to chat with her while she was at her post.
Quattrocchi reminded the crossing guards in attendance at Tuesday's meeting that no action has been taken yet and that the police committee's discussion on the matter is still in its infancy. "Nothing has come out of committee and will not until the committee has something to say," said Quattrocchi.
Resident Fred McCarrick was disappointed with the commotion. "I was here the night [former] Councilman [Anthony] Sytko made a plea for you to work together. This with the crossing guards was uncalled for. You should’ve taken this and done some research on it before you went out to the public. I wish you’d get together and work as a group instead of fighting each other."