CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - Cape May County's largest public workers union voted Monday to accept a smaller raise to save the jobs of about 40 co-workers.

Local 3596 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees voted 291 to 96 in favor of new terms in its labor contract that will split a planned raise in half over two years.

The membership was scheduled to get 5 percent raises in 2011. Instead, the raise will be divided over 2011 and 2012.

Union President Joseph Gariffo said it was heartening to see his members put the plight of co-workers ahead of their own self-interest. The county warned it would lay off at least 35 full-time employees unless the union agreed to concessions.

"That's not just 39 layoffs - it's 39 families," he said. "These are not the times to be out of work."

The union represents about 750 full-time and part-time employees.

Gariffo said he will meet with County Administrator Stephen O'Connor this week to finalize the reworked contract.

O'Connor said he was pleased with the outcome. The county promised to avoid major layoffs this year or next if its nine labor unions accepted new terms. Local 3596 was the last to negotiate an agreement.

"I think it speaks highly of the county employees that all of its nine bargaining units voted for wage concessions to save their colleagues' jobs," he said. "Nobody at the county wanted to see anyone laid off."

O'Connor said New Jersey still needs some union reform, but credited county employees for their vote.

"I don't think public employees deserve the bashing they're getting," he said.

The vote took place in ballots collected from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the historic Cape May County Courthouse in Middle Township.

"It was a good vote. They voted their heart," Gariffo said. "Public employees are taking a beating now from Trenton on down. We get criticized about our benefits and vacation time. I knew deep down that our people in Cape May would do the right thing for the taxpayers, themselves and the county."

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