Dialogue on pay for state workers begins

State workers: Some unions already have OK'd cuts, higher premiums

January 30, 2011 

A few state employee unions have ratified contracts that will give them 3 percent less pay starting in July and health insurance premiums that will be at least 25 percent higher in 2012.

But most general-government workers in the Washington Federation of State Employees still are voting on Gov. Chris Gregoire’s contract offer, although a few groups – such as the Washington Public Employees Association’s higher-education and general-government units – have hit an outright impasse in negotiations.

So three weeks into Washington’s 105-day legislative session, it’s still too early to say exactly where state employees as a whole will end up on pay and benefits. All that’s sure is that workers are most likely to see less cash in their paychecks, more unpaid furloughs and bigger out-of-pocket payments for health care premiums and care.

The Washington Public Employees Union is taking a harder line on Gregoire’s contract offer than most unions and is not even bringing it up for a vote. Its members include revenue agents, Liquor Board workers, and teachers in a school for childhood deafness and the blind, and they are growing tired of seeing their benefits cut and pay reduced through temporary layoffs.

“It’s the will of the members. It’s who we work for and who we represent,” Greg Parker, president of the WPEA, said Friday. “Our members overwhelmingly said they were not interested in having anything put in front of them for a ratification vote that was a (wage) take-away … whether it was 1 percent or 10.”

Parker said members have shared sacrifices like those of other unions. That has meant going without cost-of-living pay raises in recent years, paying higher medical costs, taking furloughs and seeing jobs cut.

Parker said his restless members negotiated in 2008 for pay raises only to see them yanked away a few months later.

But Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla say payroll is such a large piece of the state budget that cuts are essential. He would like to go further than the governor and consider getting rid of collective bargaining, arguing that the landmark 2002 Personnel Reform Act ties the hands of budget writers.

Gregoire’s budget proposal for 2011-13 assumes lower pay for workers in the form of additional furloughs and higher medical insurance premiums paid by workers. These would save about $330 million from all state accounts if Gregoire is able to extend the cuts to 90 percent of the state work force.

Marty Brown, state budget director, has said the state has no choice but to cut costs everywhere, including pay and laying off workers.

Without a contract, Brown said, workers are taking risks. That is because he believes there is language in existing contracts – that would stay in effect for another year past June 30 – to allow temporary layoffs or other reductions in compensation. And he thinks the state can still get close to the $330 million in savings.

WPEA negotiator Lou Baker said there are risks but also possible benefits to rejecting the state contract offer.

“The best that could happen, and we’re not even saying it would happen … but a year from now the economy could have rebounded,” Baker said. “We’re told the worst thing we could do is lock ourselves in for year two (in 2013) if the economy came back substantially.”

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said last week that her caucus was only just learning about the status of contract talks, and it was too early to say where it all was headed. But she flatly rejected recent Republican suggestions to eliminate collective bargaining.

One exception to that Democratic resistance is with the ferry unions, where some workers qualify for triple-time pay. There is bipartisan support for House Bill 1511 and similar Senate measures that would bring ferry contracts and pay rules in line with other state government employee groups, and a hearing on HB 1511 is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday before the House Committee on Labor, Commerce and Workforce Development.

Meanwhile, votes are still being cast by members of the large Federation of State Employees. Union negotiators tentatively agreed in December to increase workers’ share of health insurance premiums to 15 percent, up from 12 percent, and the pay cuts through furloughs last December.

Ballots went out recently to voting members of the union that represents close to 40,000 people.

“They’ll start coming in the mail and are due back by Feb. 11,” spokesman Tim Welch said, adding that with a 40-page explanatory paper that went with ballots, he thinks members will see the benefit of having a contract.

The union plans information meetings for workers this week around the state, including in Olympia.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com www.theolympian.com/politicsblog

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