Some Luzerne County government employees will be laid off today, but the exact number wasn’t publicly released at Monday’s council meeting.
The administration originally said an estimated 36 workers must be furloughed if unions don’t accept health care changes to close a lingering $1.4 million gap in the 2014 budget before Jan. 1.
Only two unions voted to accept these concessions — the rank-and-file residual unit represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the court-appointed professional union covering probation and domestic relation support officers.
But the administration still plans to proceed with the most significant health care change — switching from two to one insurance provider — even though eight unions rejected the request, several county officials confirmed after the meeting, including Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri.
Pedri said Geisinger declined to participate due to the small number of county employees enrolled, which leaves the Blue Cross managed care plan as the only option.
Though county officials plan to argue they are powerless to provide a second option, union grievances and legal challenges are expected because all union contracts say the county must provide employees with their choice of two managed care plans, with some specifically citing both Geisinger and Blue Cross.
County management will meet this morning to finalize how much savings will be realized from the conversion to one provider and estimate the cost of legal fees to defend the county against union challenges. The net reduction will be subtracted from the $1.4 million, and the remaining gap will be closed with layoffs, officials said.
The other two concessions involved higher copayments and a new $500 deductible on hospital admissions.
County Manager Robert Lawton told council he will notify them today on the number of layoffs that will be rescinded.
Notices to some of the 36 employees went out two weeks ago. The administration can’t order specific staff cuts in court branches, the district attorney’s office or controller’s office because their personnel don’t fall under the control of the manager. Lawton has said he will provide a dollar amount of cuts that must be made in these three areas, if necessary.
Lawton told council the 2014 budget will be balanced at 11:59 p.m. tonight.
Pedri and Lawton praised all union leaders for discussing and considering concessions.
Written concession agreements for the AFSCME residual and court-appointed professional unions were not brought before council for a vote Monday night because more participation was needed to make a “large enough dent,” Pedri said.
Charles Majikes, a probation officer representing court-appointed professionals, said his union “could have easily” rejected the proposal because it’s contract doesn’t expire until the end of 2014.
“We decided we wanted to do our part in helping out to try and prevent any layoffs,” he said, noting the union’s offer of more than $300,000 in concessions last year was rejected by the administration.
Majikes said his union had 124 employees in 2009 and lost more than 30 percent due to layoffs.
“We continue to do our jobs, along with all the stress that continues to hang over all of us each and every day, including the so-called end-of-year layoffs that are always pending,” Majikes said.
He praised council for adopting an 8-percent tax increase recommended by Lawton to avoid mass layoffs and said the impact will be “astronomical” if a council majority votes to reopen the 2014 budget and partially or fully eliminate the tax hike after two new council members take office next week.
Majikes criticized statements from some council members that there’s “too much fat.” He said employees are the “backbone” of the county, including many who “dedicated their careers” to county government.
“We are all sick and tired of hearing that we don’t work and sit around all day, lay them off. Hopefully this is over,” he said.
AFSCME union head Paula Schnelly, who was not at Monday’s council meeting, said 237 out of 334 eligible members cast votes on the proposed concessions. Though the residual unit agreed to the changes, the court-related unit and court-appointed support staff unit rejected them, she said.
Union leaders representing all three units had tentatively agreed to the county’s offer, but Schnelly said the members have a right to vote.
“The members voted the way they saw fit, and that was the fairest way to let this happen,” Schnelly said.
The concessions also were rejected by unions representing detectives, prison workers, assistant public defenders/district attorneys and three human service branches — Children and Youth, Aging and Mental Health.
Councilman Harry Haas thanked unions that considered concessions and said layoffs may “look good on paper” but create problems when implemented.
“I’m afraid county services are really going to suffer,” Haas said.
Councilman Rick Morelli said it’s “unfortunate” concessions couldn’t be obtained, though both sides worked hard.
“People need to understand times are changing,” he said.