Politics & Government

Raises amount to $617 million Union contracts go to Office of Financial Management

The price tag for new state worker union contracts, including some hefty raises, is more than $617 million.

Less than half of the cost over the next two years will come from the state's main tax collections.

Many of the workers are paid through their specific programs.

Employees represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, for example, work at state liquor stores and are paid through the profits on liquor sales.

With a projected budget surplus of more than $1 billion, there should be enough funds to pay the raises through the general fund, said state Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia.

"I think that's in the neighborhood we're thinking, $300 million, $350 million. I think it's a reasonable contract," he said.

Contracts for 11 union groups and an all-

inclusive health benefits package covering some 60,000 unionized state workers were turned in to the governor's Office of Financial Management this week. The costs of the two-year contracts will be built into Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed budget, and the Legislature will have a yes-or-no say on funding them.

The rest of the approximately 108,000 state workers will have their salaries set by the budget directly, and it is not clear what raises may be in store for nonunion employees.

"We haven't worked that out and, frankly, the governor hasn't decided what she's going to do for nonrepresented," said Steve McLain, director of the Labor Relations Office.

Last year, Gregoire attempted to extend the raises won by unions at the bargaining table to all state employees. Democratic budget writers, however, included a two-month delay in those raises for nonunion workers.

Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County, the lead Republican on the House budget committee, noted that the delay cost

$8 million to put in place because of required changes to the state payroll computer.

"We already saw the difficulty when we tried to extend a lag period. Employees may move and shift positions, so hopefully whatever we do in the Legislature will be a uniform item," he said.

Putting money toward the liability on employee pension programs would be a good use of one-time surplus funds, Alexander said.

This year, most unions negotiated a 3.2 percent pay raise next year, a 2 percent increase in 2008, a new pay step for long-term workers, and - most substantially for many workers - a raise to bring all workers to no less than 75 percent the market rate pay for their job type.

The unions collectively agreed to a health benefits package that set the average worker cost of insurance at 12 percent.

Separately, Service Employees International Union Local 775 agreed to a $51.7 million deal for 23,000 home care workers. The workers are hired by elderly or disabled Medicaid clients, but paid by the state. The union had proposed a package worth $85.2 million, but a third-party arbitrator decided several articles in its contract.

Another SEIU local representing 10,000 child-care workers still is negotiating a deal. Those workers won the right to bargain for wages and benefits this year, and have a later, Nov. 15, deadline to approve a contract.

McLain said the state and the child-care workers are in mediation, and may go to mandatory arbitration, where both sides must agree to a third party's decision, as early as next week.

Adam Wilson covers state workers and politics for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-753-1688 or awilson@theolympian.com.