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County issues layoff notices

Concession talks with unions ongoing

Spokane County has started handing out layoff notices, and a few employees will be asking this week to leave at the end of November so they can take advantage of a federal program that helps pay their health insurance costs.

And dozens more layoffs are coming by the end of December unless unions and managers reach agreements on concessions in wages or work hours. County Prosecutor Steve Tucker said Thursday he has notified eight attorneys and four support staff that they will be out of jobs by the beginning of 2010 unless changes are made to the final year of the county’s labor agreement.

“I’ll be losing my whole misdemeanor department,” Tucker said. That’s because the more recently hired attorneys handle misdemeanors, and layoffs are made by seniority. He’ll ask for volunteers in other departments to staff the misdemeanor department.

To avoid layoffs in the prosecutor’s department, employees would have to give up their scheduled cost-of-living raises for 2010 and take two days off without pay each month, Tucker said. Negotiations are continuing, but employees who could be laid off were notified a month ago, he said.

Similar notices have gone out to employees in the courts, the criminal justice system and all county services.

This week, however, county employees on potential layoff lists faced a new problem: The federal Recovery Act will cover a portion of a displaced worker’s health care payments to COBRA, a federal insurance replacement system – but only if that employee is without medical insurance before Dec. 31.

Because county contracts extend health care coverage for a month after a worker is laid off, and require 10 business days between a termination notice and the final day of work, employees who want federal aid for medical insurance must be given notices by the end of this week.

They’re being given a difficult choice: Collect a paycheck through the end of the year, then go on COBRA and pay 102 percent of the full cost of the insurance plan they had with the county; or volunteer to leave by the end of November, giving up paychecks for December but paying only 35 percent of the cost of health insurance premiums for as long as nine months.

“By December 31, you have to be in a COBRA plan” to take advantage of the federal program, said Cathy Malzahn, the county’s human resources director. County officials had hoped that Congress would extend the program to cover workers who lose benefits next year, she said, but so far it has not. They didn’t discover the problem with the earlier deadlines until last week.

For employees, that means deciding whether to leave while union leaders and managers are trying to work out concessions that could save jobs. Those agreements have to be approved by county commissioners, who have the overall budget authority, passed by a majority of the union members in a particular unit, and ratified by the union’s executive board, said Tim O’Brien, the county’s labor relations director.

So far, the concessions have been a mix of unpaid days off and wage freezes. Jail lieutenants agreed to forgo cost-of-living adjustments scheduled for January and July and to work as salaried rather than hourly employees. Employees in the treasurer’s and auditor’s offices and the purchasing department will take different numbers of furlough days. Building and Planning employees have tentatively agreed to continue four-day weeks, which were instituted last summer, through 2010. Managers and union representatives for the county clerk’s office had a tentative agreement that converted the employees’ paid holidays, when offices are closed, into unpaid furlough days, but union members rejected that and discussions have resumed, O’Brien said.

Because so many different proposals are being discussed, it’s not yet possible to give an exact number of layoffs countywide, Malzahn said. There will 24 layoffs between the county jail and Geiger Corrections Center, but other departments may be negotiating through the first week of December, when commissioners vote on a budget for 2010.