Patti Wenzel

State contracts benefit employees, not taxpayers

By - Dec 6th, 2010 04:00 am

Jim Doyle signs a previous state contract. Will he get another chance? Photo courtesy Wisconsin Dept. of Administration

Last week, Jim Doyle said he was not hiding anything in the state employee contracts currently being negotiated, which he hopes to have approved before Gov.-elect Scott Walker is sworn in.

“There is no money for any raises, and there are furloughs. There is nothing going on,” Doyle said.

The state has released details of Doyle’s summary, showing employees will have 16 furlough days (which is essentially a 3.25 percent pay cut), a 6.9 percent increase in employee contributions to health care and at 0.2-0.8 percent increase in pension contributions.

On Friday, the MacIver Institute obtained working copies of the contract currently under discussion from employees involved in the negotiations. The copies deal with health benefits, grievance procedures and overtime. From the looks of these drafts, state employees could recoup their wages lost to furloughs and change how overtime benefits are managed.

That is exactly what voters and incoming Republican politicians fear — that the devil is in the details.

State employees have been working without a contract since July 2009. Any contract ratified now will be retroactive to July 2009 and ending in June 2011. But Walker argues that any contracts put into place now will contribute to the current state deficit and will increase the deficit the next budget will have to absorb.

The documents unveiled some changes which Doyle failed to share. As for overtime, the decision as to how overtime will be paid to employees, either at time-and-a-half in cash, or compensatory time or a combination thereof, is moved from the employer (the state, or the taxpayers) to the employees.

Allowing managers to determine how overtime is used allows them to stay within their budgets, but with the power shifted to the employees, the costs to the state could go up. That amount remains unknown, and the Department of Administration will not comment on the impact.

But Mary Czynszak-Lyne, a bargaining representative for the state employees union, told the Wisconsin State Journal that the same provision allows employees to receive a comp. time payout at the end of the year for unused time off.

“Between comp time, holidays, vacation time and furlough days, most employees can’t possibly take all of their time off and typically just end up losing those days,” she said.

In addition to the state losing control of how overtime and comp time are handled, union representatives could receive paid time off to attend up to two arbitration hearings for training or mentoring purposes. That is in addition to paid time off for hearings they are subpoenaed to attend.

Another perk for employees could be a sick pay conversion. The proposed contract would allow retirees to convert any unused sick leave at retirement at the highest pay rate earned in state service — not what they were being paid at the time they stopped working. The same conversion rate could be used when determining sick leave for a work-related injury or disease.

More pay can be had if an employee is injured on the job and needs to be treated at a hospital. If they are released from the hospital after the regular shift ended, they can receive up to 2 hours of straight time pay. Another pay perk allows an employee who had seniority for filling an empty shift, but wasn’t scheduled in favor of allowing another to work overtime, would be allowed to grieve for time and one-half on the hours they could have worked.

The argument that Doyle and the union don’t have to share this information because it is currently in negotiations is correct. Public employee contract negotiations are one of the many exceptions to Wisconsin’s liberal open records law. But what is legal and what is right is not always the same thing.

The sudden rush to adopt these contracts with the argument that “they will only memorialize what has already happened,” is specious. The tidbits Doyle has shared sound promising, but once you get into the meat of the deals, you see that it is business as usual. While there are thousands across the state who would love to have a minimum wage job, state employees are taking control of their overtime compensation and working the system to get better retirement benefits.

Photo courtesy Marathon County GOP

Tying the state’s hands with this contract proposal will cost us millions during the current budget and will set a base for the next budget that will be difficult to overcome without massive layoffs and programs cuts to state programs.

Walker said as much on Friday, when asked about the potential ratification of the contracts.

“If you lock into a contract before we know what all our options are, that takes one more potential way to balance the budget off the table,” he said. “Taking it off the table puts more pressure on other things, like cuts in education and health care, which I don’t think are options most lawmakers want to take.”

Some of us are working well below our pay grade, without health benefits and if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll have a 401(k) with a few thousand in it. It is time for state employees to suck it up and have to live within the means of the taxpayer.

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