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County workers return to job

October 26, 2017

More than 500 Lane County government employees returned to work Wednesday as the first strike by a county labor union in 38 years ended in the dark of night.

County administration and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union negotiators struck a tentative deal for a new three-year contract late Tuesday.

Under the agreement, the union dropped most of its financial proposals and accepted most of the terms the administration had been sticking to.

Sidewalks were largely empty outside local government offices in downtown Eugene on Wednesday morning, one week after AFSCME-represented workers began their strike with pickets outside numerous county buildings.

The union protested the county’s contract offer of a roughly 3 percent average cost-of-living raise in the contract’s first year; the county also said employees must start paying $240 to $840 annually toward their health insurance premiums next year, for which they currently pay nothing.

The union sought far higher raises than the county’s offer. As talks between the sides hit an impasse last month, AFSCME submitted an offer averaging 14.8 percent cost-of-living raises for AFSCME general unit employees in the contract’s first year and 19.8 percent for the AFSCME nurses unit.

AFSCME also rejected the proposed health plan payments, saying it would result in a net pay decrease for workers in lower-paying jobs. The county disputed that.

The larger raises would have increased the county’s total personnel spending on AFSCME-represented workers by $32.6 million during the three-year contract, or an average of $47,100 per worker during the three years. AFSCME represents 692 workers.

The county offer would have increased personnel costs by $8.8 million during the contract, or an average of $12,700 per worker during the three years.

In the end, AFSCME agreed to a contract largely on the county’s terms. The tentative deal will increase county personnel costs by $9 million during the three-year contract, Lane County Administrator Steve Mokrohisky said Wednesday.

The changes agreed to Tuesday to the county administration proposal include a $100,000 one-time payment to the union to distribute to AFSCME Local 2831 workers and a delay in the start date for health insurance payments to July 1, costing about $100,000.

“We tried to listen throughout all of this to the union to understand where their concerns were. I think there are a number of things that recognize the concerns that the union and the employees have brought up,” Mokrohisky said. “What we said all along is, whatever we agree to, we have to be able to pay for. So we feel this is a contract that we can pay for, and it’s also a contract that reflects the concerns that our employees and the union have expressed.”

AFSCME extracted several concessions from the county, including the creation of a joint county and union process to review some employee wages in the middle of the current contract. Other additions include greater oversight of the use of part-time positions in the AFSCME units and eligibility of some dental hygienists for county health insurance.

“We are so proud of all of (our) members who held the line for the last six days,” AFSCME Local 2831 President LaRece Rivera said in a statement shortly after the tentative deal was reached. “We were standing up for our community, our wages, health care and respect! Together we held strong and have built a stronger organization for the fights ahead. We would like to thank our fellow unions, citizens and the many small business who supported us through this. We want to express to the community how excited we are to get back to work serving Lane County.”

AFSMCE-represented workers will vote on the contract Thursday and Friday. If they approve it, county commissioners could ratify the contract at their next regular meeting Tuesday.

In addition to the 3 percent raise in the first year, workers not at the top scale of their job would receive a step increase of 3.7 percent. In each subsequent year, workers would get a 2 percent annual cost-of-living increase, and those not at the top of their scale also would receive a 3.7 percent step increase, although the exact amounts would vary, depending on the position.

A deal Tuesday at first seemed unlikely, with the two sides not scheduled to meet with a state mediator until Wednesday after nine hours of talks Sunday failed to yield an agreement. A proposal by AFSCME Sunday night was about $2 million more than the county’s offer, Mokrohisky said.

As county negotiators reviewed the proposal into Tuesday, he said, the mediator told them AFSCME wanted to meet with another offer. The sides resumed talks around 4 p.m. and announced the tentative deal just before 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night.

Mokrohisky said striking employees were welcomed back Wednesday. County services were returning to normal levels throughout the day.

“This is a time for getting back to work and also beginning to repair relationships and the culture in our organization, and that’s going to take time,” he said. “What we’re trying to demonstrate today is respect and care for our employees who were on strike who are coming back.”

Follow Elon Glucklich on Twitter @EGlucklich . Email elon.glucklich@registerguard.com .

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