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Placer County Supes hike health-care cost-share for employees

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Healthcare costs are rising for Placer County’s largest employee group. And many are unhappy about the Board of Supervisors decision today that essentially doubles theirs. Placer County supervisors voted 4-1 today to increase the health-care cost-share from 10 percent to 20 percent for members of its largest bargaining unit – the 1,850-member Placer Public Employees Organization. Advised by bargaining team leaders that they and negotiators for the Placer Public Employees Organization were too far apart to bring in a mediator, the Board of Supervisors voted to impose a package of cost-saving measures that includes the health-care insurance hike. Working and retired employees wore red shirts in a show of unity and voiced their concerns about a budget move that would take dollars from their paycheck or out of their retirement income. Fifteen-year employee Darrell Hendricks described the move as “heartless,” with anywhere from $250 to $500 extra in monthly costs to be shouldered by employees. “Most employees live paycheck to paycheck,” Hendricks said, adding that morale is at an all-time low. ”Do the right thing and come back to the bargaining table.” Supervisor Jim Holmes, who represents the Auburn-Newcastle-Loomis area, described his decision as a tough one to make before voting in favor of a package of measures that also includes a new, 600-hour limit on the number of paid sick-leave hours an employee can accrue. Holmes said he couldn’t think of another employer besides the county that pays 80 percent of employee health-insurance costs. Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery, whose district takes in eastern Placer County, was the lone supervisor to vote against moving ahead with cost-saving measures. Instead, Montgomery called on supervisors to order negotiators back for mediation sessions that could possibly work out concerns she has about retirees paying more for healthcare and capping sick-pay hours. “To penalize the people who stay healthy and strong enough for work is just disgusting,” Montgomery said. Tom Jones, one of a handful of non-union members attending today's board meeting, said he too was disgusted – but at the Placer Public Employees bargaining team for what he described as poor representation. Jones said that county’s decisions are part of its plan to deal with a terrible economy. “After listening to the rank and file (at today's meeting), I don’t understand why the county would ever consider mediation,” Jones said. Chuck Thiel, business representative for Stationary Engineers Local 39, and Clark Gehlbach, Placer Public Employees Organization president, both were critical of CEO Tom Miller and his office’s handling of contract negotiations. Gehlbach said Miller is almost universally disliked by members of the organization and morale is in its greatest decline in the county’s history. Miller didn’t directly respond to comments directed at him but did say that he appreciates their intensity. The employees organization has been without a labor agreement since the June 30 expiration of the previous four-year contract. The two sides have been in talks since May but an impasse was declared a month ago, leading to the vote today on imposition of healthcare and other cost-saving proposals. Thiel said the union was willing to go back to the bargaining table or move to mediation. “If this impasse was declared to stop the discussion on bloated management retirement pay, it isn’t going to work,’ Thiel said. “We don’t represent the people in the $100,000 PERS club.” Special Counsel Dick Whitmore said that at the time the impasse was declared, the union negotiators indicated the two sides should continue negotiating. “’But we haven’t been negotiating for months,” Whitmore said. “We believe the county needs to take the several steps recommended to protect the county financially, going into the future.” With the health-care insurance-cost issue still not settled and open enrollment starting next week and closing Oct. 7, the matter had to be resolved in a timely manner to give employees the opportunity to make a decision on providers, he said. Thiel said provisions could be made to open up enrollment later. The board, however, made its decision as it moves ahead with a budget fine-tuned over the summer that – at $739 million – is about 6 percent smaller than last year’s. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Key decision points - The contributions most Placer Public Employees Organization make to their pensions increase from 1 to 2 percent of their salaries. Placer County will continue to make contributions equal to 21.157 percent of salaries. - The county will now pay 80 percent of the cost for health care for employees and their dependents, with the employees picking up the remaining 20 percent. Currently, active employees pay 10 percent. In keeping with CalPERS rules, which require that retirees and active employees receive equal benefits, retirees will pay 20 percent also. - A two-tier pension system is established under which future county employees will receive a slightly lesser pension benefit than existing employees, calculated over the last three years of employment, instead of the current one highest year of compensation. Source: Placer County