County freezes wages for 460 workers

Move will save $2.2M; negotiations continue with other employees

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Under collective bargaining agreements approved Tuesday for 460 Clark County employees, wages will be frozen for two years.

And, for the first time, full-time county employees will pay a portion of their health care premiums starting in January 2012.

Francine Reis, the county’s human resources director, said negotiations are ongoing with unions that represent other county employees.

The agreements unanimously approved Tuesday by Clark County commissioners were with Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 11, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 17 and Laborers International Union of North America Local 335.

The unions represent engineers, appraisers, office staff and other employees, and the agreements were worked out over 16 months, Reis said. The previous contracts had expired in June 2009, so the wage freeze applies to 2010 and 2011.

In 2012, the employees will receive a 2 percent raise. They had been receiving, on average, a 3 percent raise every year.

Responding to criticism from residents who testified that public employees get a much sweeter deal than private-sector employees, Commissioner Tom Mielke said it all averages out.

“Our CEO makes a fraction of what the CEO of G.E. makes, while our truck drivers might make a little more,” Mielke said.

County Administrator Bill Barron earns $170,000 a year. His salary, along with the wages of 280 management employees, has been frozen for two years.

To Mielke’s point, the CEO of General Electric has a base salary of $3.3 million and total compensation package of $9.8 million in 2009, according to Forbes magazine.

Last year, commissioners voted to continue freezing pay for managers in addition to freezing pay for 159 hourly workers not represented by labor organizations.

That move saved approximately $1.3 million, Reis said.

Tuesday’s vote to freeze pay for an additional 460 employees will save approximately $2.2 million, Reis said.

Camas resident Margaret Tweet criticized the county Tuesday for not letting the public have input on public salaries.

Reis said labor negotiations, mediation sessions and executive sessions with commissioners to discuss the negotiations are all exempt from public meeting laws.

Barron said after the meeting that all residents are always welcome to attend the commissioners’ weekly meetings. During the public comment portion, residents can speak about whatever they want.

Reis said the county uses Spokane, Thurston and Snohomish counties in Washington and Washington and Clackamas counties in Oregon as comparisons when negotiating wages and benefits.

Reis said that, at the direction of the commissioners, she has started looking at the private sector but has not done any direct studies. A few hurdles are that not all public jobs have equals in the private sector, such as sheriff’s deputies, and private companies aren’t required to disclose what they offer in terms of wages and benefits.

The county has looked at the private sector before, Reis said.

For example, the county couldn’t attract qualified candidates for information technology jobs in the 1980s because the private sector was paying so much better.

The county ended up raising wages for those jobs, Reis said.

A big problem for the county, as well as every other employer, has been the rising cost of health care, Reis said.

The county employs approximately 1,640 people. It has eliminated 207 positions since January 2009 through layoffs, retirements, reorganizations and not filling vacancies.

In 2011, the county will pay an additional 5 percent for most employees (an average of $53.82 per employee per month) for health care premiums, Reis said. The county was looking at having to pay an additional 9 percent, but made up the difference by reducing the benefits.

For example, employees will pay $20 for an office visit next year, up from $15, and $15 for a generic prescription, up from $10.

The contracts approved Tuesday will affect pensions, which are set by the state, only in that they are based on an employee’s earnings over 5 years prior to retirement.

Stephanie Rice: stephanie.rice@columbian.com or 360-735-4508.