Union challenges County’s public employee contracts

April 30, 2011

The Hood River County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to implement the county's "last best" contract offer to its county courthouse employees.

That action, and a pending unfair labor practice charge against the count, could potentially lead to first-of-its-kind litigation by the Oregon Employer Relations board.

The county and Local 1082, which represents the employees, declared impasse in February, and under the Oregon Revised Statutes a public employer may implement its final offer 30 days after that point.

Negotiations broke down between the two sides in February, and with no resolution coming soon, the Board of Commissioners moved to implement the contract, which goes into effect May 1 and covers the bargaining period from July 2010 to June 2013.

Both the 1082 and 2503 (County Public Works), which represent the majority of county employees, are now operating under county implemented contracts. If the public employer implements its offer, public employees have the right to strike.

In this case that applies to all of the courthouse employees except for the deputy district attorneys, who are strike-prohibited.

The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 75, which represents the locals at the state level, said the option was a possibility.

"No options are off the table at this point," said AFSCME staff representative Jaimie Sorenson via email. "The local is frankly in shock at the employer's actions and are considering their options. Of course should they vote to strike we would follow the law and give proper notice."

Like the contract which was implemented on the 2503 union, the contract includes provisions for having employees pay a portion of health care benefits.

In the first year (June 2010-11) employees are expected to pay 15 percent of health costs, while paying 20 percent in the second and third years.

In the implemented contract, employees would pay health care costs retroactive back to November.

The AFSCME filed an unfair labor practices claim with the Oregon Employee Relations Board over the health care payments dating back to November.

ERB chair Paul Gamson said he could not recall any previous cases regarding retroactive benefits payments being brought before the board.

"We call it a case of first impression," Gamson said. "And that appears to be the case."

Sorenson contends the county's actions are illegal and said the locals had never agreed to retroactive health care payments.

"The illegal actions the county has taken are around the retroactive collecting on the health insurance premiums. This was not agreed to," Sorenson said via email. "During the time they want to collect back from the provisions of the previous contract were in place 'status quo.' The locals had agreed to all of the county's economic concessions, but never agreed to go retroactive on the healthcare deductions."

According to the Oregon Revised Statutes: "After a collective bargaining agreement has expired, and prior to agreement on a successor contract, the status quo with respect to employment relations shall be preserved until completion of impasses procedures."

Whether the county's decision to retroactively enforce the payments for health care benefits were in fact illegal will eventually be determined by the ERB, which will also rule on several other unfair labor practices claims filed by both the unions and the county.

With the economic recession and the rising cost of benefits, state Employee Relations Board conciliator Robert Nightingale said he has seen a substantial uptick in mediation regarding public employees and employers dealing with that impact.

"They are either a huge issue in mediation; or, if settled prior to mediation, have sucked all of the resources out of settlement potentials so other economics are hard to settle. What has changed more recently is the scope of the problem and public perception of the issue for themselves and for the public employees that serve them," Nightingale said via email.

"When I started in employment relations many years ago, benefits might have been 5 to 10 percent of compensation. Now it is not unusual to have them exceed 70 percent. We have public employees in a number of settings around the state who actually write a check to their employer every month because their earnings do not cover the cost of their insurance. That brings those issues to mediation with a great deal of heat."

Neither Gamson nor Nightingale could comment on any further specifics regarding the allegations in the complaint due to the pending litigation at the ERB.

Hood River County Administrator David Meriwether said that members of the 1082 had received a notice in their paychecks giving them the option of paying the retroactive costs over a period of four months or less.

The implemented contracts expire in June 2013, and Meriwether said he is not sure how much the bargaining position of either side will change before the next negotiation cycle begins in 2012.

"Where the economy is at is going to be the key to a lot of things," he said. "What the costs of services are and the old story of health insurance and PERS. The story really hasn't changed from three years ago. Those are the three 800-pound gorillas in the room."

The contract does not include a set minimum number of work hours in a day or in a week for employees, designates deputy district attorneys as a strike prohibited sub-unit of the 1082, allows for no cost of living increase from July 2010 to July 2011, a 1-percent increase in 2011 and a 2-percent increase in July 2012 and removes the ability of laid-off employees to bump another employee based on seniority.

"This is a very difficult contract," Meriwether said. "And we knew it would be because it's in a recessionary time. It's not just here, either. The mediators we engaged with in the discussions back and forth in the fall were just running themselves ragged because it's a very common theme - particularly the cost of benefits which are crippling local governments and the state government. Trying to address those in a recessionary time is very difficult and very painful, not just for the county but for the employees too."

The unfair labor practices claim regarding the retroactive health benefits payments is currently awaiting a hearing by the Employee Relations Board.

The ERB will determine if any illegal action was undertaken during the bargaining process, but the decision will likely take several months.

"That claim is currently before one of our Administrative Law Judges and will be processed over the next few months," Nightingale said. "Until a decision is rendered by our board, the matter of who is right has not been determined."

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