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Bill would take away state worker right to bargain on health benefits, while requiring wellness programs

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on Feb. 18, 2013 at 5:57 pm with No Comments »
February 18, 2013 6:04 pm
Sen. Rodney Tom
Sen. Rodney Tom

Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom introduced a bill Monday that would mandate that wellness programs be a part of state employees’ health plans starting on Jan. 1, 2014. Senate Bill 5811 also would strip health-care from the issues that are subject to collective bargaining, and it is fast-tracked for a hearing Thursday afternoon.

One major public-employee union is already crying foul.

“Not only is it an assault on one of our bargaining rights, I think it is an end run around our current bargaining and doesn’t give the current governor a chance to discuss his ideas on wellness,” said Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, which represents some 40,000 workers in general government and higher education.

Under the Personnel Services Reform Act of 2002, state employees negotiate every two years with the governor over wages and health benefits. Typically health benefits are dealt with in a group negotiation that includes more than two-dozen unions.

But no such deal was reached last year with then-governor Chris Gregoire.

There also were efforts to consider a wellness program in the failed negotiations. WFSE says wellness programs are a good concept, and the Public Employees’ Benefits Board considered a premium discount last year for employees who opted in.

Ultimately the idea was shelved amid concerns that the limited funds Gregoire wanted to put into the program would limit the discount – and even cause it to shrink if large numbers of employees agreed to join in.

Tom’s bill appears to get around that problem by making it a mandate. His measure is scheduled for a hearing during the 3:30 p.m. Thursday meeting of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

But there could be a legal wrinkle in Tom’s way. Absent a deal on health care, the labor contracts in effect for 2011-13 would stay in effect for a year – or at least through June 2014. That raises questions whether anyone can change the terms of the deal before that date.

Tom did not immediately return a call late today asking for clarification.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by three Republicans in the Majority Coalition Caucus that controls the Senate, is only one of several that the union considers anti-labor.

“Our fear is it is the first of many attacks on collective bargaining rights this session,” Welch said.

One other bill hated by the federation is Sen. Michael Baumgartner’s proposal to take away collective bargaining from the Department of Enterprise Services and to require that the governor’s budget office evaluate whether it makes financial sense to contract out for services in the Motor Pool, real estate contracts, and custodial services.

The latter measure, Senate Bill 5717, had been scheduled for a hearing Monday morning in the Senate Government Operations Committee.

Republican Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn chairs that committee and said she intends to have the bill re-referred to Ways and Means at Monday’s 6 p.m. evening hearing of her committee.

“It’s a budget bill so we’ll give it to them,’’ Roach said.

But Welch said it undermines the competitive contracting provisions of the 2002 collective bargaining law. That law let employee groups offer counterproposals or bids if an area of state government service was proposed for privatization.

Under reforms that Baumgartner sponsored in 2011 at Gregoire’s request, parts or all of five agencies were consolidated into three agencies – including the new Enterprise Services. That same bill also required the governor’s Office of Financial Management to identify up to six areas of government to consider for contracting out.

OFM currently is reviewing whether or not to seek private bids for bulk printing, management of public agency web sites and delivery of state mail outside Thurston County. OFM has until June 30 but it earlier had been expected to render recommendations by last fall.

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