Published Date Written by Michael KitchLACONIA — The Belknap County Commissioners voted yesterday to approve the collective bargaining agreements negotiated with the three unions representing employees of the Belknap County Nursing Home, Sheriff's Department and Corrections Department. The unions ratified the contracts last week. But, there is little likelihood the agreements will be funded.
Before the commission can ratify the contracts, the Belknap County Convention must approve the cost items included in them — step raises for eligible employees at $115,000 along with approximately $35,000 in funding for bonuses for unused sick days and longevity of service. The convention has eliminated the funding not only for these three cost items but also for the increase in health insurance premiums from the 2013 county budget.
The commission asked the convention to consider the cost items in the new contracts when the convention met this week, but after placing the subject on the agenda, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, refused to bring the item to the floor for discussion.
The agreements include the merit step raises for eligible employees recommended by the Belknap County Commission but stripped from the 2013 county budget by the Belknap County Convention. Although employees would receive no increase to their salary schedules this year, they would be awarded a two-percent raise for every level in June, 2014, prior to the expiration of the agreement, funds for which would be appropriated in the 2014 county budget.
The employees' contributions to the cost of health insurance remain unchanged. However, the contracts include incentives designed to reduce health care costs by providing employees paths to wellness. The entire county complex would become a non-smoking area. All employees would be required to undergo a health assessment and physical examination as well as participate in a wellness program. The contribution to premium costs of those who failed to comply would increase by as much as three times. The program is intended to lower the risk profile of county employees and with it future premium costs.
The county's union contracts expired at the end of 2012. If the new contracts are not ratified, the relationship between the county and its union employees will revert to the status quo. In return for employees foregoing the right to strike and in order to provide employers with incentive to bargain, public employee contracts are governed by the so-called "doctrine of status quo." It stipulates that when collective bargaining agreements expire their terms and conditions, except for so-called cost items, remain in effect pending ratification of a new agreement.
Step raises, or new rates of pay specified by a salary schedule for an additional year of service, qualify as cost items and are not awarded in lieu of a new contract. But, since health insurance is a defined benefit in the contracts, without an assigned dollar value, public employers are obliged to continue to pay their agreed upon percentage of premium costs for specified policies, regardless of the cost of the premiums.
Without funding for the 7.3-percent increase in health insurance premiums, the county commission could find itself with the choice of asking employees to contribute a greater share to the cost their health insurance or laying off enough employees to provide health insurance to the remainder at the new cost. If employees were to bear the additional cost, the contribution of those with two-person and family plans, who currently contribute five-percent, to 11.5-percent.