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State workers’ health benefits at issue

FRIDAY, AUG. 27, 2010

OLYMPIA – Gov. Chris Gregoire wants state workers to pay up to 26 percent of their health insurance premiums next year, part of a hold-the-line contract offer that will include no pay raises.

One other option in the offer is for workers to keep paying 12 percent of health premiums but accept even higher out-of-pocket costs that already went up in January.

“We don’t have any money,” said Gregoire’s budget director, Marty Brown. Brown was responding to questions Wednesday about the offer that Gregoire’s labor negotiators made to unions during formal contract talks Tuesday.

The Washington Federation of State Employees has rejected the offer, which covers health, dental, vision and life insurance costs. Only the health care portion of those benefits is in dispute.

“Our best estimate is you would be taking a pay cut of $2,316 a year,” spokesman Tim Welch said Wednesday, describing the financial hit for a worker with full-family coverage in one of the two biggest worker health plans, Uniform Medical or Group Health. Welch said it is equivalent to a pay cut of almost 8 percent for a low-paid custodian.

“We’re probably in the middle of a four-year wage freeze. We’ve already taken cuts and furloughs and cuts in health benefits; out-of-pocket health costs went up dramatically Jan. 1,” Welch added.

Brown said the state’s offer is to continue paying $850 per month per worker on average for health and other insurance benefits, which translates into the state paying about 74 percent of health insurance costs.

The Labor Relations Office is negotiating about two dozen labor contracts with unions representing workers in general government and higher education. Agreements must be reached and ratified by Oct. 1 to allow inclusion in Gregoire’s budget proposal for 2011-’13.

The rival parties were at the table again Wednesday at the Thurston County Fairgrounds, and Brown spoke because top labor negotiator Diane Leigh was tied up in talks. No formal pay offer is on the table to the federation, but Brown said the governor’s negotiators want a contract that freezes pay, including so-called “step” or longevity increases that reward a portion of workers for their experience.

State employees today pay 12 percent of the cost of health insurance premiums, and the state pays the other 88 percent. Minority Republicans in the Legislature have said the workers’ share is too low, despite increases in out-of-pocket costs in recent years.

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