Thursday, July 10, 2014

Union concessions gain ground

Some county workers tentatively OK changes

December 09. 2013 11:53PM

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The leaders of half of Luzerne County’s 10 unions have tentatively accepted health care concessions that would close a 2014 budget deficit without 38 layoffs, officials say.

The remaining unknowns: the prison union represented by LIUNA Public Service Employees’ Union Local 1310 and four Teamsters Local 401 unions representing Children and Youth, Aging, Mental Health and assistant public defenders/district attorneys.

A lack of agreement from the prison and Teamsters likely would kill any chance of concessions because these five unions represent about 45 percent of the county’s 1,450 employees.

Negotiation is not required to impose changes on the county’s roughly 300 non-union employees.

In addition to a new $500 hospital-stay deductible and increased copayments, unions are being asked to give up their choice of two managed-care health plans through Geisinger or Blue Cross and receive coverage solely through Blue Cross.

Employees paying percentages toward health care, as opposed to fixed rates, also would have to pay more based on current costs, but county officials say the percentage contributions would be significantly lower and locked in for two years by switching exclusively to Blue Cross.

About 250 employees receiving county health coverage are currently enrolled with Geisinger, officials say.

Prison union representative Tom Borum and Teamsters Local 401’s Pat Connors could not be reached for comment Monday.

Borum has said he would have a difficult time agreeing to concessions while negotiating a new package to replace the current contract expiring the end of this month. All four Teamsters contracts also expire Dec. 31.

The concession-related layoffs are independent of any cuts that would be necessary if council does not adopt a proposed 8-percent tax hike at tonight’s meeting. The 38 layoffs would be a mix of union and non-union positions in six of the county’s eight divisions — excluding the public defender’s office and prison.

Several council members have said the willingness of unions to accept concessions may weigh into their decision on a proposed tax hike.

Aside from concession-related cuts, there would be no layoffs with an 8-percent increase and 194 layoffs with no tax hike.

A majority of six of 11 council votes are required to pass a budget, and six council members were not willing to go as high as 8 percent last week. Insiders say the tax hike vote is expected to end up between 6 and 7.5 percent.

Councilman Jim Bobeck, who supports an 8-percent increase, said he can’t predict the outcome but remains hopeful.

“I think in the end a majority of council members will compromise and come to an agreement that’s best for the county in the long term,” Bobeck said.

Paula Schnelly, who represents 340 workers in three American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, units said her union provided tentative agreement on the health care concessions.

Members must vote to provide an official verdict because they would be reopening their contracts, but a vote can’t be organized before council’s vote, Schnelly said.

“I communicated with them it’s not such a bad deal,” Schnelly said. “Yes, it’s an increase, but it’s not as substantial as it would be if we stayed with two insurance providers.”

Schnelly said her union will be “once again be the one taking the biggest hit” if layoffs occur.

“I feel confident to say AFSCME did everything it could up to this point to avoid layoffs,” Schnelly said.

Charles Majikes, who represents probation officers and domestic relations support officers, said his union members will vote before the council meeting but believes members will accept the concessions. That union contract doesn’t expire until the end of 2014.

“The early signs indicate that the unions are doing their part. I just hope that county council does its part and takes the request by county Manager (Robert) Lawton to raise taxes by 8 percent,” Majikes said.

Sources also say the county detective union has tentatively agreed to the concessions, but the union is not commenting on pending negotiations.

County Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri will brief council on the concessions in executive session at 6 tonight before the public budget vote, which is expected to start at 6:45 p.m. in the council meeting room at the courthouse.

Lawton said the administration will do its best to implement the option selected by council. He has said the county may reduce public office hours without a tax hike, but it’s unlikely a majority would go below a 6 percent hike. A 6-percent increase would require 50 layoffs, not including the 38 if concessions fall through.

“The county staff will strive to mitigate the service impact on county residents, just as we have in preparation of the proposed budget,” Lawton said.

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