A longtime state employee and union official who was accused of inappropriately using time at work and his workplace email account to conduct union and personal business has won the right to return to work, according to an arbitrator’s decision.
Usher Piller, a Management Specialist in the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance and the chief steward for Public Employees Federation Division 191, is expected to receive back pay of about $235,000 for the time he was suspended from his post. He also will receive compensation for vacation and sick days that would have been due to him.
Although the arbitrator, Mary Crangle, sustained seven of the 13 charges levied against Mr. Piller, including misconduct and insubordination, and concluded that he should receive a six-month suspension, she found that the effort to terminate him “lacks the requisite just cause.” Given that he has in effect been suspended from his post for nearly three years, he long ago served that penalty.
Mr. Piller was suspended without pay in April 2017 pending charges. He was later charged with violating numerous OTDA policies, including using state resources and falsifying his time card.
“There is no evidence that his unauthorized use of State resources, or his failure to adhere to his assigned work schedule as proven, interfered with the performance of his assigned duties,” Ms. Crangle wrote in her Feb. 3 decision and order.
She noted that Mr. Piller, who has worked for the state since 1979, “is a long term employee with no proven prior disciplinary record.”
Mr. Piller said that from the outset, he had little doubt that the state’s effort to terminate him was improper. He also disagreed with Ms. Crangle’s findings that he was at all guilty.
“I consider it a victory, even though the decision says I’m guilty of this and guilty of that,” he said in a phone interview. “But it’s a bunch of baloney.”
He said the use of his computer for union business “had no deleterious effect on state operations,” and that even state officials were in agreement.
“They were hoping I would cave in,” he said. “It was a way to shut me up and shut up the union.”
At the time of his suspension, Mr. Piller said he thought one cause of officials’ action against him was an email he sent to about 5,000 state employees that criticized Brian Daniels, the then-Associate Commissioner of the State Commission for the Blind.
But, following the arbitrator’s decision, Mr. Piller said that email was merely a pretext for state officials, Governor Cuomo and his aides among them, to fire him for his union activities.
Mr. Piller also directed a 4½-year fight to reinstate Harvey Brody, a Medical Investigator in the Office of the Medicare Inspector General who was suspended without any formal charges being filed against him for about two-and-half years before charging him with violating patient-privacy rules for emailing files to his home computer.
Both he and Mr. Piller said at the time the real reason for Mr. Brody’s banishment was his doggedness in hunting out waste and corruption in the Medicaid system.
An arbitrator found in Mr. Brody’s favor in June 2016 and ordered him reinstated with back pay. OMIG, though, refused to let back to work. He eventually settled and retired from the agency.
“They’re very anti-union,” Mr. Piller said of state officials.
PEF Head: Harassed Him
The PEF president, Wayne Spence, said the union steward had been unjustly punished for his robust advocacy, and characterized Mr. Piller's embroilment by state officials as “harassment.”
“Usher is somebody that I look up to,” he said, even when his efforts sometimes target union policies and leadership. “I can appreciate that because that’s how strong his conviction is.”
Mr. Spence raised the possibility that Mr. Piller had been targeted by state higher-ups.
“Was it because they didn’t like what he was saying about the Governor?” he asked. “He shouldn’t have to pay back anything, not even the six months."
Through his suspension, Mr. Piller continued to advocate on behalf of union members.
'Can't Silence Me'
“I’m happy to represent the workers that are being exploited by a vicious government,” he said, again characterizing the Governor and his aides as an “anti-union and anti-labor government.”
“They can’t silence me,” he added.
Mr. Piller, who was scheduled to return to his state post the week of Feb. 17, said he took out a 15-year mortgage on his Midwood home to support himself during his unpaid exile.
Mr. Piller, 67, said he has no intention of retiring.
“I’m happy to say if I had to do it over again, I would,” he said. “I have no regrets over what I did.”
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