Union’s proposed contract for county workers draws ire

  • By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
  • Friday, August 12, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

Some Snohomish County leaders say a demand from the county’s largest workers union, in a proposed contract, seeks the equivalent of a signing bonus.

To them, the request to give $460 to each of the union’s members is a perk the county can ill-afford right now.

Union leaders, meanwhile,

call the one-time payment an adjustment for paying higher medical premiums. To them, it’s not a signing bonus at all.

An official agreement with the The Washington State Council of County and City Employees is expected to come before the council next week. The union, part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, represents 1,380 of Snohomish County’s approximately 2,500 workers.

In labor negotiations, County Executive Aaron Reardon’s office acts as a go-between between the County Council and the union. The council then approves or rejects the contract.

The contract under discussion is for 2011 and 2012. The previous contract expired at the end of last year, meaning union members this year have been without a new agreement.

County Councilman Dave Gossett said he could agree to most other union demands in the contract, including a 1.35 percent cost-of-living increase effective next spring.

But the bonus, for him, is “very likely” a deal-breaker. Multiplied by all employees represented by the union, the $460 payment would total more than $600,000. That’s assuming other county employees with different unions or no union representation don’t get the same offer.

“I don’t think there’s any need in the current economy to provide a signing bonus to our employees,” he said.

James Trefry, a union staff representative, said it’s wrong to call the payment a signing bonus.

“The medical (premiums) came in more expensive than anybody anticipated,” he said. The union has been flexible, he said, including agreeing to a cost of living increase that is only about a third of what it would be in a typical year. The goal is to save jobs and continue providing service to the community.

“We specifically did not want to have anybody laid off because of anything we negotiated,” he said.

In recent budget cycles, significant cuts have generally translated into layoffs or furloughs.

County leaders have started planning for next year’s budget. So far, no large-scale job losses appear likely, Deputy County Executive Gary Haakenson said.

“If we do any layoffs, it’s not going to be related to a budget crunch,” he said. “It’s going to be related to not having work for them to do.”

The proposed AFSCME contract also features a $7,000 retirement incentive for employees with more than 25 years working for the county. It’s intended to help those who would otherwise retire, but are afraid to lose medical benefits.

Often, businesses make these kinds of retirement offers to sidestep or minimize layoffs.

That’s not the case here, according to the union and the executive’s office. Both said relatively few people would qualify for the incentive, though they had no exact number on hand.

Trefry said that the retirement incentive would be financially neutral or even save the county from paying unemployment insurance. Haakenson said it might be beneficial to everyone, by simultaneously easing some older workers into retirement while allowing the county to hire younger people to replace them at a lower pay grade.

Union pay raises were a point of contention in early 2009, when Reardon and the County Council approved at least $6 million in extra salary. That deal included signing bonuses that averaged about $300 per person, but came after the county laid off about 80 workers.

Later that year, as the county’s worsening financial situation became apparent, union members agreed to take 11 furlough days. The pay cut helped the county bridge a $6.7 million budget gap.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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