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City, unions reach deal on health insurance

Posted: June 24, 2011 - 9:37am

Soldotna City Council unanimously voted in favor of changes to the city’s collective bargaining agreements with the Public Safety Employees Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Wednesday night.

Health insurance premiums are increasing 40 percent next year, and the old agreement stipulated that employees shoulder half the cost of premium increases. Left unchanged, this would impose a significant financial burden on the employees. These Soldotna employees, 10 from the PSEA and 30 from the IBEW, are already paying more than double what their counterparts in Kenai and other similarly sized municipalities are paying for health insurance premiums.

Both unions met with City Manager Larry Semmens to discuss the matter. After negotiations, the two reached an agreement where employees will pay a lower percentage of their health insurance premiums in exchange for capping their potential cost of living increase at 2 percent for the 2013 fiscal year. It was previously capped at 3.5 percent.

“I felt like it was beneficial to accept that counterproposal even though it was very slightly more expensive than what I had proposed,” Semmens said.

Semmens called the deal a “fair trade” and said that he believes employees are “still bearing an appropriate level of the health insurance cost.”

Semmens also said that keeping the city’s benefit package competitive is important; if present or potential employees see that their health insurance costs are exorbitant compared to other cities, it will negatively impact the city’s ability to recruit and retain a productive workforce.

Rob Norman, an assistant shop steward for the IBEW, addressed the council Wednesday evening, expressing his appreciation for all the work Semmens put into formulating the amended agreement.

“I think the employees – the majority of them – are really happy with it,” Norman said. “I think that they feel you (the council) and Larry went above and beyond what we were hoping.”

Norman acknowledged that having a working relationship between the IBEW and the city is important, and that leaving the agreement as it was would have put a definite strain on some of the employees.

“We are people, and we do live here and work here and we’re not just faceless,” he said. “It was going to have an effect, and a lot of people really feel grateful. They feel wanted and needed.”

Mayor Peter Micciche also voiced his approval of the cooperation between the city and the unions.

“This demonstrates that both sides have been willing to work together,” he said. “We have good employees who work hard, but costs are increasing significantly. So I’m glad to see the compromise.”

In addition to the resolution passed amending the health insurance changes to the collective bargaining agreements, a separate resolution only pertaining to the city’s agreement with the IBEW was also voted through. This change eliminated 15 days of sick leave in favor of 7.5 days of personal leave for IBEW employees, but allowed for an additional .7 percent cost of living increase.

Again, Semmens stressed that this is a good deal for the city, and that the switch from sick leave to personal leave will increase efficiency and reduce absenteeism in the workforce.

“This is something that we wanted a year ago, so I’m certainly all for it,” said Councilmember Brenda Hartman.

The next council meeting will be held July 13.

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