Miami-Dade commissioners restore union workers’ pay

12/05/2013 8:20 AM

12/06/2013 3:27 AM

Miami-Dade County commissioners eliminated an unpopular employee healthcare concession on Thursday, restoring public workers’ pay in defiance of Mayor Carlos Gimenez after hours of harrowing testimony from labor unions.

As of Jan. 1, most of the county’s nearly 26,000 employees will stop contributing 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs, for the first time in more than three years.

To make up for the contribution, Gimenez’s administration will be forced to cut $56 million from the county’s current $4.4 billion operating budget. About $27 million of that will come from the general fund. The Jackson Health System will also have to adjust its budget.

Layoffs, the mayor said, are probable. Fee hikes, he added, are also possible.

“Are we still in a very tough situation? Yes, we are,” said Commissioner Jean Monestime, who voted to eliminate the concession. “But when these employees gave back to the county, they were in a very difficult situation as well.”

Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa and Commissioners Monestime, Bruno Barreiro, Audrey Edmonson, Barbara Jordan, Dennis Moss, Javier Souto and Xavier Suarez voted in favor. Vice-Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Sally Heyman voted against.

Commissioners Jose “Pepe” Diaz, who was hospitalized, and Juan C. Zapata were absent.

The decisive 8-3 vote, taken after a 12-hour special meeting, does not provide the commission with a nine-vote, veto-proof super-majority against Gimenez, who had asked to keep the concession in place. Gimenez is likely to wield his veto pen.

“What they did today was completely irresponsible,” an angry Gimenez said after the vote. “They squarely were on the side of the employees instead of the people of Miami-Dade County. I think we need to do another round.”

As part of their vote, commissioners also restricted the coming budget cuts. They said administrators should protect direct services and avoid dipping into most reserves. They authorized tapping a health-insurance trust fund — but only the surplus after protecting over 60 days’ worth of insurance claims. Union leaders have suggested taking more from the fund.

The marathon impasse hearings highlighted the terrible relationship between Gimenez’s administration and labor, with commissioners saying the situation is untenable.

“This has become a game,” Sosa said, citing “a lack of cooperation from both sides.”

Gimenez repeatedly reminded commissioners that they adopted a budget in September that did not raise the property-tax rate to set aside funds to do away with the healthcare contribution. Now, administrators will have to come up with the money three months into the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

“We’re only creating a deeper hole for next year,” Gimenez said.

Bell put it more bluntly: “If we do this, we are going to have to eventually raise taxes. There’s no doubt about it.”

Six of 13 commissioners are on the ballot in 2014 — including Sosa, who indirectly reminded her colleagues that the first-round of the election takes place in August, the month after the commission sets the tax rate.

Gimenez has said he will not propose a tax-rate hike.

Still, seven employee unions argued Thursday that, by seeking to extend the concession, the mayor was reneging on the administration’s pledge that the healthcare contribution would be temporary.

“We ask that the 13 of you keep your word,” Mark Richard, an attorney for four of the unions, told commissioners.

Gimenez countered that it was not an ironclad promise because the concession allowed the county to reopen the contract provision in question if Miami-Dade’s fiscal position was still tenuous. With all labor contracts set to expire next year, he said his administration could revisit the concession with unions at the bargaining table.

“We’ve got a structural issue here,” he said. “Unfortunately, our expenses are rising faster than our revenues.”

But commissioners said they could not support prolonging the concession without an end in sight. Several commissioners chided Gimenez, who reorganized the government after he was elected two years ago, for not coming up with more recent alternatives other than slashing services and jobs or hiking the tax rate.

The concession began during tight budget times as a way to avoid an across-the-board cut to employees’ base pay, which in some cases would have reduced workers’ pension payouts. Unions also gave up millions of dollars in other benefits and perks. All union employees, even those who got their health insurance from a spouse and part time workers, had to pay the 5 percent.

On Thursday, workers stepped up one by one to the lecterns and told commissioners about the personal hardships they have faced as a result of their shrunken incomes.

Samuel D. Smith, a water-meter repairman in the county’s water and sewer department, said he can no longer pay for gas or car insurance on his annual salary of about $42,000.

“I can’t afford to drive my truck no more,” Smith said, his voice breaking. “People are hurting out here.”

That’s certainly the case for employees like Carlila Barnett, a water and sewer janitor whose annual salary is just under $20,000. But other workers who spoke at the hearing earn considerably more.

“I have had to cut back on buying organic foods and the number of days I attend CrossFit,” said Linda Pierre, an administrative officer at South Florida Workforce who makes about $65,000 a year.

Commissioners acknowledged the wide range in employee salaries. In the end, however, their decision hinged less on workers’ pay and more on treating all unions fairly.

The commission rebuffed Gimenez in September and, overriding his veto, ended the concession for employees who pick up the county’s garbage. That also eliminated the giveback for aviation employees, due to a provision in the aviation contract that allowed those workers to piggyback.

Most board members said they could not justify treating those two unions separate from the other labor groups, which have traditionally been treated the same way.

“I have a very easy vote today,” said Sosa, who had voted against restoring the pay for those unions. “Since they gave it to others, I will give it to the others that are left.”

The seven unions at issue Thursday represent county professionals and supervisors; police officers; water and sewer workers; general employees; transit workers; Jackson hospital janitors and other support staff, and Jackson professionals, nurses and physicians.

Firefighters have been exempt from the concession because they are covered by a separate health-insurance plan.

The concession applies to Miami-Dade’s more than 2,700 non-unionized workers. Whether they continue to make it is solely up to the mayor for employees in his administration, and up to commissioners for their office staff.

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