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Nothing in Erie County’s recent contract offer to its largest union, the Civil Service Employees Association, comes from out of left field. The proposal swims along with the trend set by recent pacts offered to public employees in New York these days by expecting that the workers will pay a portion of their health care premiums.
In fact, the proposal is not even unusual for deals already in place with some other unions representing Erie County employees. The blue-collar union and road patrol deputies already pay a slice of their health care costs, just as the county’s management-confidential employees have done for years.
All this background is to urge some 3,500 members of Local 815, CSEA, to ratify the tentative agreement because, on par, it is a fair offer. While the employees would eventually pay 15 percent of their health care premiums, with a $4,000 annual cap, they also would receive pay raises of 11 percent over the five years of the contract, a signing bonus of up to $625 and a second payment of up to $625 in 2015. Further, employees would be able to sell back a week of vacation each year. CSEA employees will come out ahead financially under the new contract.
Yes, they also would have to surrender two paid holidays and see the end of “summer hours,” which lets the union’s employees leave work a half-hour early in the summer and still get paid for that time. The broad brushes of the pact are similar to the offer put before Local 815 in 2010 by then-County Executive Chris Collins. But for a host of reasons, the employees soundly rejected the Collins offer by an almost 2-1 margin.
A majority of workers back then preferred to remain with the terms of a contract that expired in 2006 but that remain in place thanks to the Triborough Amendment to the state’s Taylor Law. Significantly, that old contract does not require CSEA employees to pay any part of their health care premiums, even in retirement. That’s a powerful incentive for employees to reject a new contract and retain the comfortable status quo.
Of course, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz is hoping the workers ratify his offer. Poloncarz won election in 2011 with abundant union support, and union leaders might have thought they would get much more under an offer negotiated by his administration. But Poloncarz shaped the latest offer as he did because it reflects current realities. County government must lower its legacy costs and can no longer afford to indefinitely give employees free health care, especially in retirement.
County government needs to remake its union contracts because the old way simply cannot be sustained. The CSEA employees, should they compare their offer with contracts found elsewhere in government and certainly in the private sector, will find that this fair deal merits their approval.