For almost four years, most of Miami-Dade County’s nearly 26,000 employees have contributed a portion of their paychecks toward health insurance.
The practice began in the throes of the economic recession as an alternative to slashing workers’ salaries. It was slated to end in January 2014, when a new federal healthcare law was to kick in.
But now that law has been delayed. And Mayor Carlos Gimenez wants to extend the healthcare contributions another year, saying the county cannot afford restoring employees’ pay and several other benefits.
On Thursday, county commissioners will decide whether to continue requiring that workers who belong to a particular labor union contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs or to end the concession as planned. The vote will likely set a precedent for the remaining unions.
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Eliminating the contribution and other concessions from six collective-bargaining units would open a $37 million hole in the proposed 2013-14 budget. Gimenez’s administration says the shortfall would have to be plugged with more service cuts and employee layoffs.
“We’re not asking employees for additional concessions,” Gimenez said Monday. “But I cannot and will not support any effort to restore agreed-to concessions nor the 5 percent contribution to healthcare. Not on my watch.”
Despite the budget crunch created last month when commissioners agreed with Gimenez’s recommendation to keep the property-tax rate flat, a few of the 13 board members — though not a majority — have askSed the mayor to eliminate the healthcare contribution, saying workers cannot continue balancing the budget on their backs.
Even employees who are not covered by the county’s health-insurance plan, either because they’re covered by a spouse or because they work part-time and are not eligible, are required to make the healthcare contribution.
Commissioners must resolve the impasses with six of the county’s 10 collective-bargaining units. The unions are scheduled to make their case at a special meeting Thursday expected to last all day, after the votes were deferred last month.
One unit, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 199, has requested 90 minutes for its presentation, according to Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa’s office, so the other five units will be awarded the same amount of time, if they wish.
Only one of the units — AFSCME Local 3292, which represents solid-waste workers — is at impasse over the healthcare contribution. The five other units’ impasses are over other benefit concessions, which vary from union to union.
Yet because most labor contracts have clauses providing that one union must receive certain benefits negotiated by another union, ending the healthcare contribution for one unit would essentially end it for all. Unlike in most private companies, the county has traditionally covered health insurance costs for its employees, though workers must pay for additional spouse and family coverage.
“We are pulling for them to do the best they can, because we feel how their union goes will impact how our union goes,” Greg Blackman, president of the Government Supervisors Association of Florida OPEIU Local 100, which represents two units of professional and supervisory workers, said of the solid-waste union.
Also at impasse are two units of the Police Benevolent Association, representing supervisory and rank-and-file officers.
Three other unions, representing aviation, transit and water and sewer employees, have not yet hit impasses. The firefighters union was exempt from the healthcare contribution because it has its own insurance.
Union chiefs have asked commissioners to direct the administration to tap a $42 million surplus in the county’s health-insurance trust fund to end the healthcare contribution. The unions contend that the surplus is unnecessary. The administration counters that the cushion helps maintain benefits level and prevent future health-insurance rate hikes.
At the unions’ request, Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin is conducting a financial audit of the fund. That audit is still some days away, Ruvin said Wednesday.
Separately, the unions have questioned the county’s position that healthcare and pension costs have increased more than expected.
On Monday, the police union claimed its hired consultant had “unearthed” a $52 million surplus in the budget, stemming from a mistake in the reported increase in the county’s payments to the Florida Retirement System.
But while the consultant, Terry Murphy, had indeed found an error in a report provided to him by the county listing each department’s increased pension obligation, that mistake did not exist in the budget itself, according to the county — even though the mayor had been publicly citing the incorrect pension figure for weeks.
“We’ve lost confidence in the County’s ability to put forth a credible budget,” PBA President John Rivera, a longtime Gimenez foe, said in a news release Monday.
Even the corrected pension figure gave Murphy pause because it meant higher healthcare costs than the county was citing in its erroneous fringe-benefit total.
“There is no transparency when it comes to these accounts that are in the fringe-benefit world,” he said, foreshadowing his presentation on the unions’ behalf Thursday.
The county has budgeted a 10 percent increase in healthcare costs, though the actual hike in the spending plan is higher for accounting purposes. The coming year’s budget will reflect for the first time that last year, employees stopped contributing an additional 4 percent — for a total of 9 percent — of their base pay toward healthcare.
Last year, Gimenez set aside money to make up for that missing 4 percent. This year, though, he faces less pressure from the commission to do away with the remaining 5 percent, so there’s no money in the coming budget to allow for the contribution to disappear.
Even without doing away with the healthcare contribution, the county is already considering slashing library hours, eliminating fire trucks and laying off 228 workers.