Plan would restore state worker pay

Senate budget proposal offers some gains for government workers but skips COLAs for teachers set by I-732

Staff writerApril 4, 2013 

The Washington Senate laid out a two-year state spending plan Wednesday that follows Gov. Jay Inslee’s lead on several public-employee pay issues, and it drew similar reactions from labor groups.

The Senate plan restores pay for state government workers, university employees and K-12 school workers and teachers who had their pay cut temporarily by 3 percent in 2011. The Senate proposal — for which Republican Sen. Andy Hill was chief architect but had input from 15 lawmakers including Democratic Sens. Jim Hargrove and Sharon Nelson — also fully pays for two dozen labor contracts negotiated by former governor Chris Gregoire.

Just as Inslee proposed last week, the Senate budget would also pay for 5 percent pay raises for private home-care workers who are hired by clients in the Medicaid program. The money answers an arbitrator’s finding in favor of the Service Employees Union 775 Healthcare.

But the Senate seeks to repeal Initiative 732’s guarantee of cost-of-living pay raises for K-12 school employees – while Inslee only proposed to skip the raises for two years.

“It’s not the budget we expected and we are pleasantly surprised to see the proposal – especially on the (pay) contracts, on making sure there wasn’t going to be monkeying around in restoring 3 percent pay cuts,” said Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, which represents more than 40,000 state and university workers.

Under contracts negotiated by the federation, several thousand state employees can also earn an extra “step” increase in pay that is based on years in the job and a 1 percent raise in July 2014 — but only if state revenues recover to a set point.

Public employees and the governor are expected to resume negotiations on health benefits. But Welch said the Senate is proposing to provide the same health-benefits allotment to full-time state workers as Inslee was proposing. That amount is capped at $809 per worker per month for health and other insurance benefits.

But the Senate budget ends health coverage for thousands of part-time workers and takes a pioneering step that is not legally tested. It would shunt low-paid, part-time workers in state agencies, universities and K-12 schools into the new state Health Benefit Exchange under Obamacare.

As outlined by Republican and Democratic budget writers, workers would go into the exchange and receive federal subsidies to help pay for insurance. The workers also could get a $2 per hour raise from the state to help cover those costs.

Under Obamacare, large employers that don’t offer insurance to full-time workers can be fined. But Hill and Hargrove said the state could do this without being penalized by the federal government because the part time state workers would be applying to the Health Benefit Exchange for subsidies as individuals – not employees of a business.

“The technical details are still being worked out. We have not been told that it is not possible, because we can move them in as individuals instead of employees,’’ Hargrove said.

But a representative of Inslee’s budget office say that is not yet clear.

Spokeswoman Bethany Frey of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange said the law allows a penalty of up to $2,000 per worker “but this may require additional legal interpretation from the federal government.”

“From our perspective … we think it is a test of the (legal) waters. We won’t know what the Health Benefit (Exchange) plans will be until October,” said Welch. He said it also creates a two-tier system treating some general-government workers differently than others.

But while the federation was skeptical, Rick Chisa of the Public School Employees of Washington said some cafeteria and para-educators could find the idea appealing. Chisa said these workers are part time, earn little and often cannot afford the high cost of insurance under plans available to them today.

“We’re definitely interested in what was proposed today by the Senate. The devil is in the details in how it works out. It could provide an option for some school workers to get better coverage through the exchange than through the workplace,’’ Chisa said.

But as Hill and Hargrove noted, the workers would need to bargain that option with their local schools and make a decision union-local by union-local.

There are other areas of worker compensation where the Senate and Inslee appear to agree and others where they do not.

Like Inslee, the Senate plan restores funds cut in 2011 that reduced the state allotment for teacher salaries by 1.9 percent and for administrators by 3 percent.

Also like Inslee, the Senate Republican plan skips pay raises for public school teachers under Initiative 732, which grants automatic cost-of-living raises for K-12 school employees and is worth about $320 million, according to Senate budget papers.

But the Senate goes further by repealing I-732, which the more than 82,000-member Washington Education Association objects to.

“We call that balancing the education budget on the backs of teachers and other educators. It actually repeals 732,” WEA spokesman Rich Wood said. “Educators already have gone four years without a COLA, and the Legislature actually cut educator salaries last year. How can we attract and keep the best teachers and support staff if we’re falling further and further behind?”

Service Employees International Union 775 HealthCare, which represents home care workers, also spoke well of parts of the budget. Home-care workers provide help with chores for thousands of poor elderly and disabled people who are able to stay in their homes and apartments with the assistance.

“On behalf of our 43,000 members and the more than 50,000 seniors and people with disabilities for whom our members provide daily supports and services, we applaud the Senate budget writers for funding the home care contract and helping homecare aides take a modest step out of poverty,” said Adam Glickman, secretary treasurer for SEIU 775.

But SEIU did see problems with cuts that add on to reductions in services to the same poor and elderly that will be helped by the home care workers.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

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