Teamsters union calls for resignation of Carnation city manager

Back pay awarded to four wrongfully terminated employees could cost the city an estimated $500,000.

Carnation has been ordered to reinstate and issue back pay to four city employees who were laid off in 2023.

Carnation City Manager Ana Cortez terminated a total of four unionized city employees — Becky Buelna, a community economic development technician; Carl Mueller, a building maintenance worker; and two accounting clerks, Elizabeth Maurer and Stacy Starns — less than a week after the city voted to approve wage increases for both union and non-union employees. The terminations took place Feb. 14-15, 2023.

Teamsters Local Union 763, which represents the four employees, contested the firings and filed for arbitration on Feb. 15, 2023. The union won in a decision rendered on May 7, 2024.

The third-party arbitrator has ordered Carnation to stop contracting out union work, issue full back pay, and offer to reinstate the employees, according to the arbitration document.

Matthew House, a senior business agent for the Teamsters union, estimates it could cost the city $500,000. House wrote that the group also calls for Cortez’s resignation for her “union-busting tactics.”

Cortez declined to comment on the ongoing legal proceedings and whether she regretted her involvement in the layoffs.

The city is set to reconsider Cortez’s employment contract in June, according to her employment agreement. Cortez was recently in the running as a finalist for a San Juan County Manager position, up until the county council announced the hiring of another candidate on May 14, according to the Islands Weekly.

The terminations

At the time of their termination, city officials said the added cost of retaining the employees left the city with a “budget deficit,” which required the layoffs, according to a previous Valley Record article. The wage increase was included in the Feb. 9, 2023, collective bargaining agreement (CBA) reached between the city and Teamsters Local Union 736 after months of negotiations.

“The City has determined that it can no longer support its current organizational structure and will permanently eliminate some positions,” Cortez wrote in a letter to inform the employees of their termination. “Therefore, your position will no longer exist, and the City will not replace you.”

Since terminating the four employees, Carnation hired three new bargaining unit employees (represented by a labor union): a clerical worker in March 2023, a maintenance worker in June 2023, and a second maintenance worker in August 2023, according to the arbitration document. Teamsters claims the employees were hired at the lowest pay rate permissible under the CBA.

According to the arbitration document, the city failed to actively post and fill the bargaining unit positions, and used non-bargaining unit personnel to perform bargaining unit work to avoid filling the positions in a timely manner. Both are violations of the letter of understanding included in the city’s CBA.

Three of the four employees — Mueller, Maurer and Starns — will receive back pay from the date of their termination until the city offers to reinstate them.

Buelna, who was asked to return to her position in April, declined the offer, but will receive back pay from the date of her termination to April 14, 2023.

According to Teamsters, the estimated cost for the city in back pay will grow daily until all four employees receive a reinstatement offer.

Carnation has been ordered to post and fill Buelna’s position and the remaining positions unless filled by the terminated employees. The exact amount of money owed to the employees is being worked out by legal representatives, House wrote.

With a population of about 2,200 people, the city has a general fund of just under $2 million, according to city documents.