Labor-contract talks are quietly underway in Olympia, and early signs are that it’s not a question of if, but how much state workers will get in pay raises in 2015.
Gov. Jay Inslee, whose labor team negotiates with unions, first said in December that state employees have “gone without COLA increases since 2008. That is just too long to wait.”
Inslee reiterated that position Saturday in remarks to a SeaTac gathering of about 500 members of the Washington Federation of State Employees, the largest state worker union that represents close to 40,000 employees.
Inslee also reminded the group that 2015 promises to be a difficult budget year because of a court ruling that requires the state to boost its spending on K-12 schools by $1.5 billion or more. But he got a standing ovation when he said it was “unacceptable” workers had gone six years without a general pay raise, according to federation spokesman Tim Welch.
Inslee’s spokesmen did not dispute that he called the lack of raises unacceptable.
Neither Inslee nor the state’s more than two-dozen unions are going public yet with what they think is a fair wage adjustment. And actual proposals for pay won’t come until after the next quarterly revenue forecast, due June 18.
But the sides have begun to talk. Federation negotiators handed an initial proposal to Inslee’s bargaining team on Tuesday that addressed noneconomic issues important to employees, Welch said. Among those were work hours, worker rights and protections for seniority and against workplace bullying.
Other major unions are expected to start offering noneconomic proposals in the coming weeks.
“Compensation issues are in the parking lot until more information comes in,” Welch said.
Health care is also a potential hot issue. The state now pays 85 percent of premium costs and employees pick up 15 percent, but some lawmakers have pushed to increase that rate. A coalition of more than two-dozen unions negotiates for identical health coverage, and Welch said those talks won’t happen until later in the summer.
A contract would run two years. A 1 percent pay raise for all general government and higher education employees would cost $33 million from the general fund and $44 million from all other funds in 2015 alone, according to the governor’s Office of Financial Management. Over two years, the cost grows to $66 million from the general fund and roughly $154 million from all sources.
The last time government workers went a significant stretch without general pay adjustments was during 2002-04. Employees won increases of 3.2 percent in 2005 and another 1.6 percent in 2006 (Teamsters received more, 2.9 percent, the second year).
State employees’ last real COLAs were 3.2 percent in 2007 and 2 percent in 2008. Roughly a third of state agency employees typically also receive step raises based on additional experience.
After the Great Recession hit, major unions negotiated contracts that protected health coverage and agreed to temporary furloughs that in effect cut pay and hours worked by 3 percent. Those furloughs ended in 2013, and employees were promised 1 percent cost of living pay adjustments in July 2014 if state revenues hit certain targets – which did not happen.
Labor groups hope they can ratify any agreements in September so the costs can be given to OFM by Oct. 1 – the deadline for putting them into the governor’s next budget plan.
Inslee has said Washington’s teachers also deserve raises after going six years without cost-of-living adjustments. K-12 employees are in line for cost-of-living raises under the terms of Initiative 732, which ties teacher COLAs to inflation.
Teachers are likely to receive 1.3 percent raises in 2015 and 1.9 percent in 2016. OFM has estimated it needs $216 million from the general fund to make those adjustments to the state salary schedule. Teachers also bargain locally for salary enhancements paid through contracts with local school districts.
Lawmakers suspended the initiative’s requirements for six straight years, avoiding hundreds of millions in costs to balance tight budgets, but I-732 remains the law.