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County employees protest contract forcing them to pay retroactive health care costs

March 22, 2011

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Downtown picketing Monday evening by Hood River County employees, including Cory Vansickle, was met by friendly honking and a rainstorm. The dozen or so union workers were protesting outside the county administration building during the board of commissioners’ monthly meeting.

Contentious negotiations between Hood River County and public employee unions moved into the public sphere when American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2503 and 1082 held an informational picket outside of the county administration building during a county commission meeting Monday evening.

At issue was the county retroactively taking 15-percent health care coverage costs out of employees' paychecks back to November when it put its contract into place following the failure of negotiations and the declaration of impasse between the sides.

"The county workers are willing to pay their share and agreed upon share of health care benefits … but they are not willing to have it retroactively taken out of their paychecks without their consent," said Oregon AFSCME Staff Representative Jaime Sorenson.

The two locals represent around 50 of 124 total county employees.

In response to the implementation of the retroactive health care costs, AFSCME filed an unfair labor practices claim with the Oregon Employment Relations Board.

According to Oregon labor law, if two sides cannot reach an agreement 30 days after going to mediation, the public employer may implement its final offer to the employees, while employees also gain the right to strike.

Monday's action was not a strike, but an informational picket occurring after work hours.

The county's final offer contained a provision asking employees to pay 15 percent of health care costs dating back to November, and County Administrator David Meriwether said that employees received a notice with their January paycheck asking them if they wanted to have the health care costs phased in over three months or taken it in one lump sum in February.

The county received a response from one employee, and took the payments out in a lump sum from the rest in February.

"We sent them a letter in early January saying we were going to implement it," Meriwether said.

About a dozen employees picketed outside the administration offices and accused the county of "wage theft." Some of the picketers briefly went into the board of commissioners chambers during the final moments of the board's work session, but then left before the board's monthly meeting began.

"We are flummoxed as to where they think they got the right to do this," said Berry Davidson, the president of Local 1082 union, which represents courthouse employees among others.

The AFSCME employees said they were willing to ratify the contract, but did not have the time to do so before the county declared an impasse in the negotiations and chose to enact its final contract offer.

"All of the terms of the contract were agreed upon," said Cory Vansickle, president of the local 2503, which represents public works, parks, forestry and museum employees.

The employees of the 2503 have already had the contract enacted by the county while the 1082 is currently at an impasse with the county in negotiations and believe they are next to have a contract enacted without member ratification.

Meriwether said that county law enforcement employees and those not under collective bargaining agreements have been paying a similar percentage of their health care costs since July.

"It's been in place since last summer for all other employees," he said.

The picketers focused much of their ire at Meriwether, who they accused of illegally withholding wages, maintaining top-heavy management and taking a large pay raise while simultaneously slashing public works staff in a flier that was distributed during the picket.

Meriwether refuted the assertion that he has taken a pay raise while asking county employees to take cuts.

"I haven't had a pay raise in the last several years and have forfeited back five percent of my salary over the same time," he said.

The picketers encouraged the county commission to repeal the retroactive health care payments, and to get involved in the situation to prevent further legal proceedings.

"The county board has the power to rectify the situation and we hope they do that," Sorenson said.

Outside the county administration offices, picketers furthered that sentiment.

"They need to get involved," Vansickle said. "It's their county. (Meriwether) is not from here."

Meriwether said the county intends to wait for the Employment Relations Board to rule on the unfair labor practices claim before going further.

"At this point it's a legal proceeding," he said.

Meanwhile, Board of Commissioner's chairman Ron Rivers said that the AFSCME should not have been going after Meriwether in such a pointed fashion.

"To vilify David is wrong," Rivers said. "He works for the board."

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