Col­lec­tive anx­i­ety

More state bills tar­get ben­e­fits, bar­gain­ing rights

Modern Healthcare - - Staffing And Labor - Jessica Zig­mond

Far from over, the Wis­con­sin bud­get battle that erupted ear­lier this year has made its way to the courts and un­der­scores how state em­ploy­ees—and even their work en­vi­ron­ment—can be af­fected by de­ci­sions lawmakers say they must make to main­tain ser­vices and pre­vent lay­offs.

Wis­con­sin gained na­tional promi­nence in March af­ter the state Leg­is­la­ture pushed a bud­get bill that first-term Repub­li­can Gov. Scott Walker said would help the state plug a nearly $140 mil­lion bud­get deficit and al­low 1,500 state em­ploy­ees to keep their jobs.

The bill re­quired what Walker called “mod­est health­care and pen­sion con­tri­bu­tions” for state em­ploy­ees. In an on­line “brown bag lunch” se­ries, Walker said the bill called for all state work­ers to con­trib­ute 5.8% of their pay for their pen­sions and con­trib­ute 12.6% of the cost of health­care cov­er­age. These pro­vi­sions were pro­jected to save $30 mil­lion.

“While tough bud­get choices cer­tainly still lie ahead, both state and lo­cal units of gov­ern­ment will not have to do any mass lay­offs or di­rect ser­vice re­duc­tions be­cause of the re­forms con­tained in the bud­get re­pair bill,” Walker said in a state­ment in early March.

David Weimer, pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science and pub­lic af­fairs at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin at Madi­son, says in an e-mail that state work­ers now con­trib­ute 6.2% of their health in­surance costs, mean­ing that per­cent­age would dou­ble.

“The unions had agreed to go along when they saw the gov­er­nor would do away with col­lec­tive-bar­gain­ing rights,” Weimer says.

Al­though Walker signed the bill March 11, it has not been pub­lished as law by the sec­re­tary of state be­cause it’s cur­rently held up in the courts. It lim­its col­lec­tive-bar­gain­ing rights for state work­ers—ex­cept po­lice of­fi­cers and fire­fight­ers—to ne­go­ti­a­tions about wages only. And then wages must be capped at the Con­sumer Price In­dex, ac­cord­ing to Les­lie Frane, di­rec­tor of the pub­lic ser­vices divi­sion at the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union.

“The mem­bers of our unions are strong ad­vo­cates for affordable health­care for ev­ery­one,” Frane says. “That’s why we sup­ported the Af­ford- able Care Act. That’s why we be­lieve all work­ers in the pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tor should have qual­ity health ben­e­fits and a voice in the con­ver­sa­tion about what those ben­e­fits will be.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures, there are at least 51 col­lec­tive-bar­gain­ing-re­lated bills in 11 states across the coun­try. For ex­am­ple, one bill in Hawaii would es­tab­lish health-ben­e­fits trust funds for the bar­gain­ing unit; re­quire pub­lic em­ploy­ers and unions to ne­go­ti­ate em­ploy­ers’ con­tri­bu­tions; change the im­passe pro­ce­dures for cer­tain bar­gain­ing units; and also pro­vide a right to strike on the is­sue of a pub­lic em­ployer’s con­tri­bu­tion for health and other ben­e­fits.

In Michi­gan, one pend­ing bill would al­low the Leg­is­la­ture to reg­u­late health ben­e­fits of pub­lic em­ploy­ees and of­fi­cers, while an­other would cre­ate a health cov­er­age plan for pub­lic em­ploy­ees and im­ple­ment the plan. The lat­ter would es­tab­lish a statewide in­surance pool for state and mu­nic­i­pal em­ploy­ees as a way to stream­line the cur­rent process, which in­cludes sev­eral lo­cal con­tracts, ac­cord­ing to state Rep. Tim Mel­ton, a Demo­crat.

And in Rhode Is­land, a bill would re­quire all state and lo­cal pub­lic em­ploy­ees to pay 25% of the pre­mium costs of health­care and den­tal ben­e­fits in any col­lec­tive-bar­gain­ing agree­ment im­ple­mented on or af­ter April 1 of this year or any ex­ten­sion ef­fec­tive as of that date.

Ac­cord­ing to the SEIU, bills are “ac­tively mov­ing” in Maine, Mas­sachusetts, Michi­gan and Ne­braska to limit pub­lic-sec­tor col­lec­tive­bar­gain­ing rights, while bills have passed in Idaho, In­di­ana, Michi­gan, Ohio, Ok­la­homa and Ten­nessee that re­move col­lec­tive-bar­gain­ing rights in some form.

In Wis­con­sin, the main is­sue con­tin­ues to be the hur­ried pro­ce­dure that led to the bill’s pas­sage in mid-March. Howard Sch­we­ber, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at UW-Madi­son, says the bud­get was pre­sented in two steps: the bud­get-re­pair bill and the bud­get. Legal bat­tles have sur­rounded the for­mer, which has an ef­fect on the full bud­get.

“There was a protest and Democrats left the state,” Sch­we­ber says. “In their ab­sence, Repub­li­cans re­moved one piece of the bud­get re­pair bill to elim­i­nate the part about the state’s debt and pushed it through. Nor­mally, a bill is

GETTY IM­AGES

Po­lice hold back pro­test­ers dur­ing a rally at the Wis­con­sin Capi­tol in March against a bill to limit col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing by pub­lic em­ploy­ees. The bill was signed but is be­ing chal­lenged in court.

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