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Union and city in mediation

Workers hold faire outside City Hall in protest of health insurance changes


by: TIMES PHOTO: GEOFF PURSINGER - Tigard city workers held a rally outside city hall, Tuesday, to protest stalled contract negotiations. The citys employee union has been working without a contract since July and have entered mediation.  After months of working without a contract, Tigard city workers are taking their grievances to City Hall.

Members of the city’s public employee union held a rally outside the Tigard City Hall on Tuesday, before filing into the City Council meeting to protest what they say is months of stagnation on the part of the city in negotiating a new contract.

“We have been in negotiations for a number of months now and the union has hit an impasse,” said city environmental coordinator Carla Staedter, who represents the union.

Members of Service Employees International Union Local 503/Oregon Public Employees Union Local 199 have been negotiating a new contract since January. The hope was to agree on a new contract before the union’s contract expired on June 30. That date has come and gone, and city workers say they are no closer to coming to an agreement with the city. The two parties entered mediation last month.

At issue are healthcare premiums. For years, city workers have not had to pay for their own healthcare premiums, but under a proposal by the city, union members would be asked to pay for 10 percent of the cost of their health insurance and to make up the difference if the cost of healthcare should rise more than 5 percent.

At Tuesday’s rally — dubbed the “Faire for a fair contract” — city workers and their families played games named “Risky Roll” and “Balance the Budget on the Workers’ Back.”

by: TIMES PHOTO: GEOFF PURSINGER - Evan Polivka, 5, takes aim at a pinata during the Faire for a fair contract rally outside of city hall. The fun and games were meant to show city officials that contract negotiations impact whole families, not just city workers.Children whacked away at a piñata, with the words “10 percent NO” written on it in large letters.

The union represents 107 workers across the city, including librarians, parks and stormwater utility workers and utility billing staff.

“They are the people that get the work done on the ground,” Staedter said. “The face-to-face people with the public.”

Many make less than $55,000

The city has been open about rising costs for years. In 2012, then-Tigard mayor Craig Dirksen said the city was on the edge of a “budget precipice” if the state didn’t make fundamental changes to the way cities are funded.

Like many cities and counties across the state, Tigard’s expenses are growing faster than the revenue it is able to bring in, and city leaders have called for change in Salem to alter the way cities are allowed to collect taxes.

“We’re in a different situation now,” said Assistant City Manager Liz Newton. “Our insurance costs are the major driver of the increases. It’s a difficult situation to make sure we stay on a financially stable course. Because medical and dental insurance costs are our biggest driver, we need to look at ways to keep those costs down.”

To reduce costs, the city laid off 11 people in 2010. Last year, the city closed the library one day a week and reduced hours for several employees.

City workers said they understand the tight financial situation the city finds itself in, but said those demands are too much for a workforce that makes less than $55,000 a year, on average.

Staedter said cutting workers’ hours and then asking them to pay more is too much to swallow.

“We are very concerned about our members’ ability to take an additional financial hit to assist the city in balancing their budget,” Staedter said. “There isn’t a single union member at the library that is full-time anymore. The entire union membership at the library works 20 to 32 hours a week.”

Insurance is bulk of payroll expense

Medical and dental insurance premiums accounted for 11.8 percent of the city’s budget last year, Newton said. If those trends continue it will take up about 13.5 percent in the next five years.

The city’s proposal would help the city save about $600,000 a year, Newton said.

“The city is committed to moving toward a financially stable situation. It’s difficult because we have great employees. They are dedicated, hardworking, and they stay, and we have a lot of people here with seniority.”

Staedter said the union wants to work with the city to meet its financial responsibilities. The union has offered to pay 5 percent of its premiums “so that members can adjust to the cost,” Staedter said.

“At the wages that many of our members earn, even 5 percent could be a life-altering thing,” Staedter said. “It’s tapping into things like grocery money, rent and basic needs. They might need to move.”

For Staedter, a single mother raising a 15-year-old son with diabetes, accepting the city’s proposal would effectively double her monthly medical bills.

Staedter said she pays about $125 a month with co-pays for insulin and other medical needs for her son. The city would add an additional $140 a month on top of that if she had to pay 10 percent of the premium.

“It might not seem like it, but $265 a month is quite a bit for our family,” she said. “That’s a big jump for most of the folks in our union.”

Should mediation fail, the city will present its best offer to the union, which will vote to either accept the proposal or strike, something both sides say they want to avoid.

“It’s not that we’re whining,” Staedter said. “We just have too many members under the threshold where this will be a huge financial hit to them.”

The next mediation session is planned for Wednesday, Oct. 9.

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