Talks with dozens of unions continue; health deal stalls
OLYMPIA – Washington state workers who saw a smaller paycheck over the past two years because of the state’s budget woes are likely to see pay cuts restored under tentative contract agreements with the state after months of negotiating.
However, unions representing about 60,000 state workers and state officials reached an impasse on Friday over health care costs in the latest contract negotiations, the governor’s office said.
But under state law, health care coverage from the previous contract will carry over to 2014 because both sides didn’t reach an agreement, officials said.
The state has been negotiating with more than two dozen unions since May. The state has reached tentative agreements with 15 unions on pay and is in arbitration with 10. Another union, Teamsters Local 117, is still at the table on pay.
The proposed contract would reverse the 3 percent pay cuts of the past two years. Negotiations continue as a Monday deadline looms by which contract agreements must be reached and ratified to allow inclusion in Gov. Chris Gregoire’s December budget proposal for 2013-’15.
The state budget director, Stan Marshburn, said he couldn’t talk about specifics surrounding current negotiations but said all parties are aware of the tight timeline.
“We’re keeping an eye on the clock and trying to resolve the differences,” he said.
If agreements aren’t reached by Monday’s deadline but reached later, the Legislature could approve the extension of the agreement date. If no agreement is reached at all, the provisions of the existing contract continue for the next year.
Aside from the restoration of the 3 percent pay cut, the tentative agreement also restores a step increase of 2.5 percent for more than 29,000 employees. That step increase was agreed to in 2008 but was deferred until 2011 for implementation. However, due to budget concerns that year, the state negotiated another deferral until the next budget cycle, which begins in July.
The two-year contract would also promise the possibility of a 1 percent raise in the second year of the contract for all state employees if state revenue rebounds faster than expected. Marshburn noted that that was solely a one-year possibility, “not a promise that it will continue into future biennia.”
Tim Welch, a spokesman for one of the unions that have reached a tentative agreement – the Washington Federation of State Employees – said that workers wanted “to start getting back a little bit of what they had to sacrifice.”
“The economy is slowly recovering,” he said. “Nobody asked for the moon. But we are slowly getting back some of what we gave up over the past four years.”
The economic agreement tentatively agreed to will cost $238 million from the state’s budget over the next two years, an amount already taken into account by the Office of Financial Management for its four-year budget outlook.
Finance officials expect that the state will have a roughly $500 million shortfall in the next two-year budget, and lawmakers are also looking to add some $1 billion to education funding.
Under state law, once an agreement is reached, the Legislature can only vote yes or no on the contract negotiated by Gregoire and the unions. No changes can be made to the agreement by lawmakers, something that Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna doesn’t agree with.
“Spending on salaries and benefits ought to compete with every other state priority and shouldn’t be put at the front of the line,” he said.
McKenna also questioned the restoration of pay cuts, noting that Gregoire and some legislative leaders have said that tax increases would be needed to pay for basic education in the state.
McKenna’s Democratic opponent, Jay Inslee, said state employees have been doing more work with fewer people.
“The fact that they have at least restored some of those previous cuts doesn’t appear to me to be unreasonable given the fact that we do hope the economy is going to start growing again and there’s tentative signs that is the case,” he said.
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