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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County, employee unions near contract deal

Spokane County and its union employees are moving toward contracts that freeze wages and scale back medical benefits.

Gordon Smith Jr., a staff representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he expects most voting on pattern-setting contracts to be complete by the end of the month.

“We are trying to partner with the county to help out in bad times and to minimize the possibility of layoffs,” Smith said.

He said employees also want to help the county maintain services “that our members take pride in providing to this community.”

The tentative agreements may be reopened next year for 2013 wages but not other issues. They involve eight AFSCME locals and a Teamsters local that represents assistant public defenders.

The deals don’t include law enforcement and corrections unions that are nearing the end of one-year wage-freezing contract extensions.

Negotiations recently got under way with those unions, which represent about 435 employees. State law prohibits strikes and allows binding arbitration to settle their contracts if the county can’t come to agreement with them.

According to an employee census in March, the county had 1,903 employees, just 281 of whom were not represented by unions.

One small union group accepted a contract earlier this month that froze wages and cut medical benefits.

Three other unions – representing about 175 engineers, deputy prosecutors and road supervisors – have been through unsuccessful mediations. County labor relations director Tim O’Brien is awaiting their response to final offers.

All of the tentative or approved contracts include two new medical and dental packages that county commissioners imposed on themselves and other nonunion employees in June.

The new plans will reduce benefits and nearly triple some premiums by requiring employees to pay 5 percent of their own medical and dental insurance premiums and 10 percent of the cost for family members.

Currently, employees pay nothing for personal coverage and just $60 a month for full family coverage.

County officials estimated earlier this year that employee costs would range from about $31 a month for individuals to about $170 for family coverage.

Even so, the new premiums remain attractive in comparison to those in the private sector.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of this year’s rates for private and nonfederal public medical plans showed workers are paying $74.90 a month on average for personal coverage and $333 for full-family coverage.

Rising medical premiums added $1.8 million to this year’s $139.3 million general fund budget.

County officials estimated in June that rate increases might cost all county funds – including roads, utilities and other special funds – about $2.5 million next year if left unchecked.

Budget Director Bob Wrigley said the new plans would roughly offset the projected increase if all county employees subscribe.