$1.3M settlement for county workers over health benefits

EVERETT — Leaders from the union that represents most Snohomish County employees say they received their largest-ever settlement this month for $1.3 million.

The dispute stems from how the county has been administering health-care benefits.

The AFSCME-affiliated Washington State Council of County and City Employees filed a grievance last year. County leaders finalized the settlement in early July.

For the union, the overriding issue is poor management of employee benefits: health, dental and long-term disability insurance.

“They were overpaying for the benefits they were receiving,” union president Chris Dugovich said.

The union started scrutinizing benefits in October 2011 after undergoing layoffs, furloughs and a wage freeze since 2008.

At the union’s insistence, the county changed its carrier for long-term disability insurance, for an annual savings of $120,000 and better coverage, Dugovich said. The county also changed dental providers to cut costs and is looking into ways to more efficiently manage healthcare.

In August 2013, the union lodged its complaint about the county under-funding its self-insured health care plan by $1.3 million. County Executive John Lovick’s administration agreed with the union’s position.

“To the credit of this administration, they were willing to work with us,” Dugovich said.

The County Council signed off a deal July 2. Under the settlement, no lump sum will go out. Instead, the money is being applied to lower what union employees pay in insurance premiums, in some cases, to just a few dollars a month. Changes took effect with paychecks last month.

Under two health plans, employees pay either $5 or $10 per month to cover just themselves, compared to $25 or $46 before. The most expensive plan costs only $46 per month to cover an entire family, compared to $213 pre-settlement. People covered by a Group Health plan pay nothing for themselves, a spouse or family members.

The rates are locked in until April. After that, the money will be used to reduce employees’ future premiums until it runs out.

The union represents about 2,000 of the county’s approximately 2,700 employees. In recent years, its members’ sacrifices helped the county balance its budget, through layoffs in 2008, 11 furlough days in 2009 and a wage freeze in 2010.

“We did the wage freeze, we did the furloughs,” Dugovich said. “And there were a lot of layoffs. We lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 members.”

The union was dismayed to later find out there were savings to be had that might have helped save at least a few positions.

Councilman Brian Sullivan said the union deserves credit for its work to help trim the budget — and an apology for the mix-up that led to the settlement.

“This issue stemmed from the previous administration, when in my opinion, AFSCME was stonewalled on it,” County Councilman Brian Sullivan said. “I don’t really blame union leaders for being upset.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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