Most Miami-Dade County workers may have thought two weeks ago that the odds were good they would soon be taking more money home in their paychecks.
It took a single person to change that Tuesday.
The County Commission came one vote shy of overturning Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s decision to veto restoring union workers’ pay.
As a result, most county and Jackson Health System employees will continue to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs for now, instead of getting that money back as of Jan. 1.
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But the impasse with labor unions is not over yet.
Gimenez’s administration must go back to brainstorming how to resolve the contract dispute with 11 bargaining units. Commissioners urged the mayor to find a way to give workers at least some relief, perhaps by shrinking the size of the healthcare contribution.
“Something’s gotta give,” Commissioner Dennis Moss said. “We can’t continue to go through this process.”
Gimenez did not set a timeline for coming back to the commission but said he would reach out to union leaders, who have complained that his administration has been uncooperative.
“It’s pretty clear that the commission wants us to negotiate something and come back with some kind of a compromise,” he said.
Frustrated union members marched out of the commission chambers after the vote in disgust.
Comissioners voted earlier this month to end the contribution that workers have been making for nearly four years. That 8-3 vote, with two commissioners absent, seemed overwhelming, especially since one of the missing commissioners would have likely cast the decisive vote.
On Tuesday, with all 13 commissioners present, the board needed a nine-vote super-majority to override the mayor.
But one commissioner, Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, changed her mind.
Sosa said she could no longer support ending the healthcare contribution because the mayor estimated it could lead to more than 100 employee layoffs.
“I am not going to vote to fire employees of this county,” she said.
That was enough to avoid the override, which was supported by Commissioners Moss and Bruno Barreiro, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Audrey Edmonson, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime, Javier Souto and Xavier Suarez. Sosa, Vice-Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Sally Heyman and Juan C. Zapata voted against.
The vote was a win for Gimenez, who has been increasingly at odds with commissioners over labor issues. He told them that opposing him again would weaken his position as the county enters new labor-contract negotiations in 2014.
Between the Dec. 5 vote and Gimenez’s veto Saturday, his administration projected that more than 100 pink slips could go out if the healthcare contribution was eliminated because it would create a $56 million hole this year and a deeper one next year in the county’s $4.4 billion operating budget.
Miami-Dade already faces a $24 million shortfall this year due to a high number of tax refunds to owners who have successfully argued their properties were overvalued.
Several commissioners said Tuesday they would lament job losses but would prefer to have fewer, better paid and more motivated employees.
“We need to look at a smaller workforce, or maybe giving less services,” Commissioner Diaz said.
Gimenez had offered a potential compromise: keeping the healthcare contribution but giving the lowest-paid employees a one-time bonus to alleviate some of their economic hardship.
Under Gimenez’s plan, employees making less than $40,000 a year would get $1,500 and those making between $40,000 and $50,000 would get $1,000.
Commissioners, however, did not fully embrace the bonus idea Tuesday. Several said they would prefer restoring a portion of employees’ pay rather than giving them a one-time payment.
Citing workers’ recurring expenses, such as rent and car payments, Commissioner Heyman suggested reducing the 5-percent healthcare contribution to 3 percent or 2 percent for the lowest-paid workers.
The county has traditionally treated all members of a bargaining unit the same, but Gimenez said he is open to exploring restoring the pay of workers who make less than $50,000 or $40,000 a year.
The unions whose pay is at issue represent police officers; general professionals and supervisors; water and sewer workers; general employees; transit workers; Jackson hospital support staff and Jackson healthcare professionals, physicians and registered nurses.
Carlos Migoya, Jackson’s chief executive, acknowledged to the commission that senior managers at the hospital system have not been making the healthcare contribution but will be doing so in the new year.
Two unions, representing sanitation and aviation workers, have already had their pay restored, after commissioners overturned an earlier Gimenez veto. That means not all county employees working side-by-side will fall under the same wage rules.
Firefighters have been exempt from the healthcare contribution because their union has a separate insurance plan. Employees who do not belong to a union also pay the 5 percent.
Unions agreed to the healthcare contribution during the throes of the economic recession as a way to help the county and avoid an across-the-board pay cut, which would affect pension benefits.
The county pays for standard health-insurance premiums for employees, who must pay the difference if they want higher levels of coverage. They must also cover co-pays and other costs, as well as premiums for their spouses and children.
The healthcare contribution has applied to all employees, even if they are insured by an outside plan or if they work part-time and do not receive benefits. It was scheduled to end Jan. 1.
Gimenez has argued that date was subject to change depending on economic conditions, which is why a provision in the contract allowed the administration to bring up the subject at the bargaining table this year.
But union members have said they were counting on the contribution to go away, and even commissioners who sided with the mayor called that a reasonable expectation.
Some board members chastised Gimenez for not drafting a long-term plan to end the contribution. The mayor countered that many employees have still been receiving merit and longevity pay raises.
But that’s not the same as getting their full salary, Commissioner Monestime said.
“If we tell folks we’re going to pay them a certain amount of money, we pay them that amount of money,” he said. “If we want to deliver excellent services to our people, we have to have excellent employees, and we have to treat them with excellence.”