Miami-Dade County

Labor negotiations heat up as Miami-Dade prepares annual budget

In Miami-Dade County government, a Metrorail conductor can get paid overtime while on vacation. A union rep can get overtime without working at all. And, sometimes, three bus drivers can get paid even if only one is driving.

Those are some of the benefits the county has targeted as part of labor-contract negotiations with its eight employee unions. Tense talks began last month over the agreements, whose three-year term expires in September.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration wants to review existing job perks, make a slew of prior concessions permanent and — most alarmingly for unionized workers — slash salaries by 10 percent.

“I am fully cognizant that employees made significant concessions during the last two contract terms,” Gimenez wrote in a June 20 memo to county commissioners. However, he added, “I intend to address those ‘benefits’ included in our contracts that do not make good business sense and are egregious in nature.”

That hard-line approach has provoked a backlash from unions, who accuse the mayor of failing to come to the collective bargaining table with an open mind.

Of particular concern to labor is Gimenez’s push to do away with concessions workers made in 2011 that are supposed to be restored this coming October. Among them: an extra $50 in each paycheck, added pay for working holidays and money to offset health-insurance costs.

One of the unions, the Government Supervisors Association of Florida OPEIU Local 100, which represents professional and supervisory workers, has already rejected the mayor’s opening gambit.

“The GSAF does not consider the County’s demands for across-the-board wage and benefit take-backs (presented on May 14th) to be in the spirit of ‘good faith’ collective bargaining,” union attorney Don Slesnick wrote in a June 16 letter to the Miami-Dade. “Therefore, the County’s contract package is rejected.”

Another union, the Police Benevolent Association, didn’t even sit down with the county for a full session last week, saying it didn’t want to deal with Miami-Dade’s lead negotiator — who 12 years ago worked for the PBA and, according to the union, might have a conflict of interest. The negotiator, Tyrone Williams, denies that any conflict exists.

Union talks are happening while Gimenez’s administration hashes out a 2014-15 budget proposal that will be presented to commissioners next month — long before any labor agreements are reached. Personnel costs make up almost all of the remaining $75 million budget shortfall, according to the county, which has a $4.4 billion operating budget this year.

Budget writers are working under the assumption that none of the concessions that “snap back” on Oct. 1 will be extended, so layoffs and service cuts would be required. Gimenez has said he is unwilling to propose a property-tax rate hike.

To the unions, the mayor’s unyielding tax position is not enough to justify his administration’s initial offer, even though some labor leaders agree that contract reforms are necessary to bring stability to the workforce.

“These labor negotiations seem more like divorce proceedings,” said Terry Murphy, a one-time commission aide who is now a union consultant. “They start out with, ‘I’m going to take everything you have, and you’ll owe me forever, and then let’s talk.’ ”

Williams, the county’s negotiator, made a different comparison: the Miami Heat’s top players accepting less pay to put the team in a winning position.

“If they take less, they can add more [players], and they can possibly win championships,” he said.

But Gimenez is not as powerful politically as he was three years ago, during the last round of contract negotiations. Back then, he had just won an election to replace his predecessor, Carlos Alvarez, whom frustrated voters kicked out of office. Commissioners, fearful for their own seats, stood by the new mayor’s side. The economy was stalled.

The Gimenez of 2014 doesn’t have a recent election victory. The economic recovery is gaining steam, with projected property values this year higher than expected. And a restive commission has bucked the mayor on labor decisions, ignoring his recommendation earlier this year to continue an employee healthcare contribution. Commissioners restored unionized workers’ pay.

Most non-union employees, including about 2,000 under the mayor’s purview, have continued to make the contribution. They also have been told that they will not get back any benefits that might snap back to union workers in October, though they would not be affected by the proposed 10 percent pay cut. That group includes deputy mayors and department chiefs.

All workers would be affected by another Gimenez proposal: to redesign the county’s health-insurance plan to make it less generous. Miami-Dade pays for employees’ premiums, unless they want additional coverage. Workers are responsible for co-pays and other costs, including premiums for spouses and children.

“It’s not a Cadillac — it’s a Rolls-Royce,” Gimenez said of the plan on Spanish-language radio last week. “It’s very, very good — and very expensive.”

To make healthcare cheaper, Miami-Dade could charge employees a premium, raise co-pays or dependent premiums, or limit the network of hospitals and doctors.

Those changes would make the plan look more like the school district’s, which is not as rich in benefits, and would save the county about $70 million a year, said Jennifer Moon, Gimenez’s budget director. Coupled with the elimination of snap-backs, a health-plan overhaul would likely save the 700 county jobs on the chopping block, she said.

But agreeing to leaner health insurance would hurt employees’ pocketbooks, said Andy Madtes, administrator of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 199, which represents general-government workers.

“It would be a draconian change to go from our plan to that plan,” said Madtes, who has proposed alternatives such as clinics for county employees modeled by some in New York City for hotel workers.

A labor healthcare committee has been considering insurance reforms but has yet to make recommendations.

Two other committees have examined compensation in recent years and proposed significant changes, including some of the ones Gimenez is seeking. Among them is a review of the more than 180 pay supplements that can dramatically increase an employee’s base salary.

An average police officer gets a 17 percent bump from standard supplements, Williams said. Those include $125 per paycheck for being a first responder, which all police officers are, and a 4 percent increase for obtaining a Florida Department of Law Enforcement certification, which is required of all police officers.

In the fire rescue department, obtaining a diver’s certificate comes with a pay supplement even if the officer doesn’t actually have a diving job assignment.

Other compensation provisions include “run pay” for transit workers, who are paid overtime while on vacation or other leave if their regular work schedule includes overtime, and “shop steward overtime,” which builds in one to two hours of daily overtime to some full-time union reps excused from their work duties.

A third practice requires the county to pay a bus or train operator filling in for a full-time union rep the same regular pay and overtime, meaning two people are paid for the same job. If the second worker is sick or on vacation, a third employee is also paid to run the route.

But many benefits were written into contracts as compromises in years when the county couldn’t afford an across-the-board pay hike, said Murphy, the union consultant. And employees who sacrificed that extra pay in 2011 so the county could afford a property-tax rate cut aren’t suggesting they get any new perks now.

“There was no expectation to come in and ask for benefit improvements in the political environment we’re in,” he said. “The expectation is just honor the contract we had.”