After a day of hearing from public workers having trouble making ends meet, Miami-Dade commissioners decided Thursday to end a contentious concession from employees — but only for those who help pick up the county’s garbage.
Most of the rest of the nearly 26,000 employees will be forced to keep contributing 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs. And they all will have to continue making a slew of other benefit concessions.
Commissioners made the exception after hearing from emotional solid-waste workers from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3292, which has 637 members. Several of the workers wept as they recounted facing home foreclosures and other financial strife.
One employee said he had to choose this month between paying his mortgage or buying school clothes for his daughters.
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“Let us live like human beings and not scavengers,” said a teary Stefanie Brown, a garbage-truck driver and union secretary. County records show she makes nearly $56,000 a year.
The public works and waste management department will have to find $1.1 million in its proposed budget of about $577 million for 2013-14 to restore workers’ pay. One of the commission’s conditions was that no additional employees be laid off.
While garbage-pickup fees won’t go up next year, in the long term they could rise more quickly than the county expected as a result of eliminating the healthcare contribution.
The aviation department, which runs Miami International Airport, will also have to find $1.7 million in its nearly $900 million budget to restore pay for its workers. The aviation union has a provision in its contract automatically granting its workers that benefit if any other county union receives it.
Both the waste management and aviation departments are paid for by fees they generate for their services, so the money to restore employees’ pay won’t affect the general fund that pays for the county’s day-to-day operations.
But now, Miami-Dade’s remaining seven collective-bargaining units will get a chance to ask in January that their pay be restored as well — setting off what some commissioners worried will be a cascading hit on the budget. (Firefighters are exempt from the 5 percent hit because they have their own health insurance.)
The government is not required to give all unions the same benefit, though “that has certainly been the tradition in the county,” said Lee Kraftchick, an assistant county attorney who handles labor matters.
Commissioners said they expect every other bargaining unit to clamor for equal treatment — which would cost the county $22 million from the general fund.
“We don’t have to give the other unions what we have to give this particular union,” Commissioner Audrey Edmonson said.
Commissioners voted 8-4 to restore solid-waste employees’ pay. Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioners Edmonson, Bruno Barreiro, Sally Heyman, Barbara Jordan, Dennis Moss, Jean Monestime and Xavier Suarez voted in favor. Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa and Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Javier Souto and Juan C. Zapata voted against.
Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz was absent from the meeting because he was hospitalized with a back injury.
Sosa said restoring the pay to some but not all workers could be perceived as unfair.
“Either we give it to all or we don’t give it to any,” she said — especially when the coming year’s budget already proposes scaling back library and fire-rescue services and laying off 228 employees.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who had recommended continuing the 5 percent healthcare contribution for all unions, has 10 days to decide whether he will veto the commission’s decision. A two-thirds majority — nine of 13 votes — would be required to overturn a veto.
“I have to weigh everything,” he said.
Commissioners sided with Gimenez on the other five union impasses they took up at Thursday’s meeting, deciding against restoring any other benefits. The concessions, which vary from union to union, ran the gamut from extra pay for employees who work at night to guaranteeing police officers more hours for court appearances. They all were scheduled to end on Jan. 1, 2014.
“The average worker in the public that doesn’t work for government or isn’t union — they don’t get all this stuff,” Bell said.
Several commissioners agreed with the unions that the county should tap a health-insurance trust fund and use those reserves to end the healthcare contribution. Terry Murphy, a consultant for the unions, argued that Florida law requires a cushion to cover only 30 days’ worth of insurance claims — not 60 days’ worth, as Gimenez’s administration contends.
“You have a tremendous reserve that’s just ballooning, and I have no idea why,” Murphy said.
Glen Volk, an actuary with Gallagher Benefit Services, the county’s health-insurance consultant, said that while the law doesn’t require employers to maintain 60 days’ worth of claims in reserve, the state does so in practice.
Commissioners asked the county to seek an opinion in writing from Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty clarifying how much Miami-Dade should keep in reserves. If the state says 30 days’ worth are enough, the commission could consider using those funds to restore everyone’s pay.
The fund — which also covers the county’s liability for health benefits paid to retirees — is projected to have $81 million by the end of next month, Budget Director Jennifer Moon said. To hit the county’s reserves target, it should ideally have nearly $100 million, she added. At the unions’ request, Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin is auditing the fund, though his report has yet to be completed.
Gimenez cautioned against the one-time draining of the reserves for recurring salaries and benefits that are to be paid every year.
“You do that, in subsequent years, you just create a bigger hole” in the budget, he said.
He suggested a one-time bonus instead.
Some commissioners chided the administration’s tone with unions. Suarez called it “too adversarial and sarcastic.” Monestime said he was “a little disturbed” that unions repeatedly characterized the county as unwilling to compromise.
Gimenez defended his administration by saying the county does not have the funds to restore concessions.
“There is no magic drawer of money where I can just go in and yank dollar bills,” he said.
Union leaders, members and their supporters spoke for five hours to the nearly full commission chambers, urging commissioners to recognize employees’ hard work and sacrifices.
“We have given back. We have given up. And we have sacrificed,” said Don Slesnick, an attorney for the Government Supervisors Association of Florida OPEIU Local 100, which represents professional and supervisory workers. “These are people.”
The other unions that made presentations, in addition to the solid-waste workers’ AFSCME Local 3292, were AFSCME Local 199, which represents general-government workers, and the Police Benevolent Association, whose two units represent supervisory and rank-and-file officers.
Their message was consistent: Public employees should not be maligned for fighting for benefits, and unions should work together with a collaborative administration to find long-term compromises.
Mark Richard, an attorney for AFSCME Local 199, gave an impassioned argument for improving the county’s relationship with labor to avoid hitting frequent impasses.
“Let’s stop apologizing for government,” he said. “There is no way that we can do business this way and continue.”