Local News

Friday, Sep 03 2010 06:02 PM

County seeking major retirement, health care concessions

BY JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

County supervisors are pushing to reverse a decision made 13 years ago that exempted veteran county employees from paycheck-by-paycheck contributions to their health and retirement benefits after five years of employment.

Their negotiators are demanding two concessions from the county's 14 bargaining units in contract negotiations that seem to be moving swiftly to an abrupt conclusion:

* That all members, over the next three years, ramp up to paying 100 percent of their share of retirement contributions, which varies based on age and other demographic variables.

* That all members begin paying 20 percent of their health-care premiums.

Those two items constitute the county's last, best and final offers, which negotiators for the Service Employees International Union, Local 521 presented Thursday night to members of the three county bargaining units they represent.

SEIU is by far county government's largest employee union.

Regina Kane, president of Local 521's Kern County chapter, said county negotiators rejected a host of non-monetary issues her team presented to counter-balance demands from supervisors.

"Many of the members feel that the last six months have been very difficult and the underlying attitude of the Board of Supervisors is not very respectful of the members," their work or the potential impact of the pay concessions on their finances and families, Kane said.

This week, small round stickers in the union's purple and yellow colors began showing up around the county.

"B.O.S. (Board of Supervisors), 4 out of 5 Incompetent."

Nobody is saying which supervisor is the competent one.

Members, Kane said, "really feel the board's financial management leaves a lot to be desired."

Several supervisors couldn't be reached for comment Friday evening.

But supervisors have argued that county workers' retirement benefits -- which allow older SEIU members to earn 3 percent of their top pay for each year they worked in retirement -- are so expensive that they can't be maintained without union concessions.

Estimates put the value of those concessions at more than $37 million a year.

ALL TOGETHER NOW

Other county unions -- representing sheriff's deputies and commanders, detention officers, probation officers and managers, firefighters and in-home care workers -- are hearing the same message when they negotiate with the county.

Susan Wells, who negotiates for the county with a contract negotiator, said there is still a lot of talking to do with many unions.

But the county had hoped to finish discussions in August or September -- October at the latest -- and that is still the timeline.

Derek Robinson, president of the Kern County Firefighters union, said the county is moving fast through the negotiation process with a clear goal seemingly in mind.

"They've made it pretty clear that their goal is reform," he said. "What's the point of even meeting because we know where you're going?"

This week supervisors declared impasse with unions that represent Kern Medical Center doctors and Kern County deputy district attorneys.

While the doctors' financial packages are unique, the county's last, best and final offer to their prosecutors would require the retirement and health care payments.

Robinson said his union meets with the county again on Sept. 16. But he has no high hopes.

"They've got us all (unions) at the bargaining table at the same time so they can impose the same thing on all of us at the same time," he said.

LARGEST UNION

For SEIU 521's local chapters, there is a lot of legwork to do before they can respond to the county's final offer.

Union spokesman James Geluso said Thursday's informational meeting with members was just the first of several that will be held around the county.

"We're going to be laying out the county's last, best and final offer" for members, he said.

Members will then have to vote on whether to offer up what supervisors want or tell them no and trigger a possible impasse in negotiations that could lead to mediation and ultimately the county imposing contract conditions.

Union members have in the past refused to accept what the supervisors are now requesting.

In 2004, when supervisors agreed to give SEIU members the 3-at-60 retirement benefit, they asked workers to begin contributing to that retirement package -- something they stopped doing in 1997 in exchange for a 27-month freeze on across-the-board raises.

Union members voted against reversing the 1997 deal and eventually got the increase in retirement benefit without making the concession.

Kane said she's not feeling a lot of willingness from supervisors to budge on the issue this time.

County negotiators did drop demands for a 13 percent pay cut and a freeze on routine raises workers receive as they advance in their careers with the county.

But Kane said SEIU has proposed a host of other contract language -- much of which would have no financial impact on the county -- and it has been soundly rejected.

"I don't know that they have ever moved this fast or pushed this hard," Robinson said.

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