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Kenyon: In Norwich, Hard Work Doesn’t Always Pay

At 7:30 on weekday mornings, Judy Trussell pulls a yellow neon vest over her jacket and takes her post in front of Tracy Hall in Norwich, where she’s a school crossing guard.

After helping elementary school kids cross Main Street for an hour, Trussell heads into Tracy Hall, where she often spends the rest of the day working in the Town Clerk’s office.

Except on Wednesdays. That’s when she reports to Norwich’s transfer station to help residents dump trash and sort recyclables. And as she’s been doing for the last 17 years, she puts in nine more hours at the transfer station on Saturdays.

Town records indicate that, among the three jobs, Trussell has been working an average of 48 hours a week since early July.

Does that fit the description of a full-time town employee to you?

It does to me. But so far, the powers-that-be in Norwich say otherwise. Town Manager Neil Fulton and the five-member Selectboard maintain that in the current budget year, which doesn’t end until June 30, they set aside only enough money for Trussell to work on a part-time basis.

Why is this a big deal?

Since she’s considered a part-time employee, Trussell, a single mom with a 6-year-old son, is ineligible for the town’s health insurance plan. (In Norwich, unlike many other Upper Valley communities, town employees must work 40 hours a week to receive medical and dental benefits.)

I wrote about Trussell in May, when she was regularly working 30 to 35 hours a week among the three jobs. It didn’t seem fair to me that someone who was doing as much for the town as Trussell should have to live in fear of getting sick and not being able to afford a doctor for herself or young son.

Trussell, 42, knows what it’s like to go without. She had a hardscrabble childhood, growing up with her mother and siblings in a low-income housing development in Hartford.

So why doesn’t Trussell just vote with her feet?

“It’s scary for a single mom to go out and get a new job,” she told me. “If (the new employer) doesn’t like you or you don’t like the job, what do you do if it doesn’t work out?”

Besides, she enjoys working in Norwich. Particularly in the Town Clerk’s office, where she does everything from filing property deeds to issuing marriage licenses.

In Vermont, employers are not required to provide health insurance benefits, said Annie Noonan, commissioner of Vermont Department of Labor. (The town does, however, have to give Trussell overtime pay after 40 hours, which it’s doing.)

On Wednesday night, Trussell sat in the audience— but didn’t ask to be heard — at a Selectboard meeting that focused on future budget issues. Fulton has proposed that part-time employees who work at least 20 hours a week be eligible for partial benefits, starting next July.

During a break in the meeting, board Chairman Christopher Ashley told me that he’s aware of Trussell’s predicament. “We’re trying to figure out how to resolve that,” he said.

What I can’t figure out is why it’s taking so long.

Trussell might be caught in the middle of a turf war between Fulton and Town Clerk Bonnie Munday. Although she’s an elected official, Munday’s budget of roughly $100,000 a year still must pass muster with Fulton and the Selectboard before going to voters.

For this fiscal year, Munday was given $12,000 for part-time help. But when the budget was drawn up nearly a year ago, Munday didn’t know that she would need joint replacement surgery in her hand. Since undergoing the surgery in late August, Munday’s work hours have been limited. Trussell has often filled in for her. “She’s doing an awesome job,” said Munday, who has been town clerk since 1995.

The town is less than halfway through its budget year, but Fulton is demanding that Munday, even with her unforeseen need for office help while she was out for medical reasons, stay within her budget. He’s delivered the same message to his department heads. “I’ve told them once that’s spent, you have no authorization to spend more money,” Fulton said.

He expects that Trussell’s work hours will drop significantly in the next couple of months. But not if Munday gets her way.

She hopes the Selectboard, and if need be, the town’s voters, will overrule Fulton. (That’s a topic for another day.)

Munday wants to hire Trussell to work up to 32 hours a week as assistant town clerk. That, along with her crossing guard duties, could get her up to permanent full-time status. But that won’t likely happen until the next budget year begins in July.

Meanwhile, Trussell and her son go without health insurance. By my math, coverage for the two of them would cost the town about $5,500 for the next seven months.

In everything from recycling to paying top-dollar to teachers, Norwich, one of the state’s wealthiest towns, prides itself (ad nauseam) on doing things the right way. Apparently, that’s not the same as doing the right thing.