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Retired de Blasio Labor Commissioner Wins $500-an-Hour Deal for Himself

MTA board member Robert Linn was a labor relations commissioner under Mayor Bill de Blasio.
MTA board member Robert Linn was a labor relations commissioner under Mayor Bill de Blasio.
MTA

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top labor negotiator retired from government employment more than two years ago but is still delivering on his reputation as a master labor negotiator — this time for himself.

City records show ex-city Office of Labor Relations commissioner Bob Linn is working for the agency he once ran, earning hundreds of dollars an hour more than before while collecting a $64,000-a-year city pension.

In June, the city Conflicts of Interest Board approved Linn for a pay hike delivering him $500 per hour as a consultant, a letter green-lighting the arrangement shows. The increase went into effect in February, according to a City Hall spokesperson.

Linn’s consulting duties include a continued role on a three-member arbitration panel working to renew the police officers’ union contract that expired in July 2017. He’s also involved with controversial health care savings negotiations with municipal unions, documents show.

In his last year as commissioner, Linn’s salary was $236,000, according to city payroll data, or about $115 an hour, not counting benefits.

The COIB letter says the board had previously approved Linn to keep performing his government duties after his February 2019 retirement while billing $175 an hour, a rate described as commensurate with his overall compensation as commissioner.

Linn needed special permission from the conflicts board because former city officials are, for a period, forbidden from continuing to work in the private sector on matters they dealt with while in their city jobs. Linn served de Blasio as commissioner starting in 2014 and had previously worked as the city’s chief labor negotiator under Mayor Ed Koch.

‘The Outside Rate’

Rachael Fauss, a senior research analyst with the government accountability nonprofit Reinvent Albany, said Linn’s continued work on projects he oversaw as commissioner isn’t a problem, but that the salary hike raises questions.

“This is an area where you’d want the agency to be able to articulate, by paying more than they’d pay a staff member, that this work can’t be done in house,” said Fauss. “If he was being paid at the same rate as his past salary, that makes sense on a level. But he’s applying the same expertise at a higher rate of pay.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) President Patrick Lynch announce a tentative contract agreement covering 23,810 NYPD employees. Blue Room, City Hall. Tuesday, January 31, 2017.
Bob Linn stands behind Mayor Bill de Blasio at right at the 2017 announcement of a Police Benevolent Association contract deal.
Mayoral Photography Office/ Ed Reed

Linn told THE CITY his consultant pay rate had been far lower than the norm because of limits based on his salary as a recently retired government worker.

“I’d often be in meetings where everyone there was earning four to five times my rate,” he told THE CITY. “I just thought that after two years it was legitimate to go to the outside rate.”

Linn also collected a city pension of $64,623 for fiscal year 2020 following his retirement, city records show.

Premium Services

The request for a pay hike for Linn was submitted to the conflicts board by current labor commissioner Renee Campion, whose most recently disclosed annual salary was $243,000. Her request came in May and was approved by the board in June, even though, according to city officials, Linn had received his pay hike in February.

Linn launched the city health care savings effort with the Municipal Labor Committee in 2014, as city worker unions sought costly wage increases from de Blasio after years of resistance from then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

His initial post-retirement contract, covering the year beginning February 2019, included consulting on school bus services, after the de Blasio administration spent years subsidizing wage shortfalls for veteran unionized drivers.

Later in 2020, de Blasio committed $890 million to buy a fleet of private school buses via a new city-run nonprofit that operates yellow bus services for special education students. Linn now serves unpaid on the board of directors of the nonprofit, NYC School Bus Umbrella Services.

Reliant Bus
A Reliant Transportation bus backs out of a Greenpoint, Brooklyn lot, April 26, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

City officials justified Linn’s recent pay hike by arguing that the Office of Labor Relations is paying a host of other external experts at similar and even pricier rates. They said he’s earned just under $90,000 over the years as a part-time consultant for the agency.

Labor relations officials told the conflicts board that they’re shelling out $550 per hour to an expert at Princeton University, $582 per hour for an actuary on the health care costs, and $750 per hour to the law firm Proskauer Rose LLP, the documents show.

First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan told the conflicts board he approved of Linn’s higher pay rate because the Police Benevolent Association contract and health care savings “are extremely important to the city… and thus the importance of [Mr. Linn’s] role cannot be understated,” according to the COIB waiver that approved the pay raise.

Police Seek Pay Parity

As commissioner, Linn was credited for negotiating new labor deals with every single municipal union — a necessity because all their contracts had expired when de Blasio took office as mayor in January 2014.

Early into his tenure, Linn also sought and received a waiver from the conflicts board — allowing him to award a no-bid contract to a firm he had founded years earlier and helmed just before his appointment as commissioner, according to the New York Post.

When Linn left his job in February 2019, Campion appointed him to a three-member panel that was charged with arbitrating the PBA’s expired contract.

That effort has since been delayed a number of times — including by the pandemic. Arbitration hearings are scheduled to continue into the next administration, according to The Chief-Leader.

PBA officials said the sole sticking point is their long-running quest for pay parity with other law enforcement agencies in the region — which would require the city to agree to a bump beyond the pattern of 7.95% raises over roughly three years set in the most recent round of labor deals.

“We know that this gross inequity will not be repaired overnight in this arbitration,” PBA President Patrick Lynch told THE CITY. “It will be up to the next mayor to commit to moving New York City police officers towards a competitive salary, so that we can continue to recruit and retain police officers who can answer New Yorkers’ call for safer streets and provide the quality of police services demanded in today’s challenging environment.”

City officials have insisted over the years that police officers in the city are paid fairly.

Before reentering government in the de Blasio administration, Linn represented labor unions in contract negotiations — including the PBA.

Paper Targets

As labor commissioner, Linn also tried to tackle the runaway costs of health care insurance for city employees — which ballooned from $1.6 billion in 2000 to more than $6.3 billion in 2017, according to City Council records. Assessments of that effort have been mixed.

The initial plan agreed to by city officials and labor unions in 2014 called for the mandated reduction of a total of $3.4 billion in costs for health care from fiscal years 2015 to 2018.

But a series of City Council hearings on those savings found that $1.9 billion of them were savings on paper only — based on health insurance costs coming in lower than the city’s high projections.

“More than half of the savings from the 2014 savings agreement came in the form of lower-than-anticipated premium rate increases at both of the two health insurance plans most commonly used by city employees,” read a 2018 City Council committee report.

The report did credit city officials for taking some steps to shift patient behavior — including upping co-pays for emergency visits and reducing them for primary care. Those actions yielded a decrease in emergency visits, urgent care visits and diagnostic X-ray tests of more than 10%, city officials said at the time.

City officials said that about $1.4 billion of the savings identified between fiscal 2015 and 2018 would be recurring. And in 2018, they agreed to cut an additional $1.1 billion in costs from fiscal 2019 to 2021, of which $600 million would recur into fiscal 2022.

While Linn told THE CITY those recent targets were reached, the Office of Labor Relations has failed to produce any reports detailing how savings have been achieved since the 2019 fiscal year.

The office had previously reported quarterly and annually on how savings on the health care savings since the 2014 fiscal year.

Laura Feyer, a City Hall spokesperson, said the reporting has been disrupted by the pandemic, but would be completed soon.

Worker Revolt

Last month, as part of the 2018 health care deal, the de Blasio administration announced plans to cut $600 million in annual costs for retirees’ health care by moving from a government-administered to a privately-administered program known as Medicare Advantage.

That shift is scheduled to start on Jan. 1, 2022.

Early word of the pending changes sparked a number of protests from retired city workers over concerns about potentially reduced services and access to doctors, combined with higher out-of-pocket costs.

But city officials have insisted that the move will result in even better coverage while yielding higher reimbursements from the federal government.

“We will make sure that people get as good or better benefits through this plan, but it will be financially viable and sustainable,” the mayor told WNYC host Brian Lehrer last month.

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