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County workers vote for strike

Jackson County workers voted overwhelmingly last weekend to authorize a strike after negotiations broke down.

“There’s not a lot of trust right now,” said Ben Morris, spokesman for SEIU Local 503, which represents 500 county employees.

Morris said no date has been set for a strike, and the union has to give county officials 10 days notice before going on strike.

“The first choice is never to go on strike,” Morris said. “The first choice is to settle.”

One of the main sticking points is the rising cost of health care.

Under the current plan, employees pay $184 a month with a $15,000 out-of-pocket maximum.

The union has recommended joining the Public Employees Benefits Board to save $3.5 million over the life of the contract, which runs from 2020 to 2022. The county has offered to put employees on the same health care plan as managers, which would cost about $50 a month.

The bargaining team has expressed interest in joining the cheaper manager health plan, but only if the plan doesn’t change for the life of the contract.

Morris said the premium for the PEBB plan would go to zero, and the maximum out-of-pocket cost for in-network would be $5,700 and for out-of-network, $14,000.

Morris said the current health plan is so expensive to use that some workers decide to go without prescriptions or avoid seeking treatment.

Another point of contention is a cost-of-living wage increase.

Morris said both sides have agreed to a 3.5% increase, but the union wants to make it retroactive to last July, while the county doesn’t want to make it retroactive.

The union also wants to conduct a salary study using Lane County as a comparison. The union also wants to keep an internal bidding process for a position, while the county wants to end internal bidding.

“There’s not a lot of trust right now,” Melissa Unger, executive director of SEIU Local 503, said in a prepared release. “Over the last six months, management has refused to allow us to move into PEBB, even though it would save the taxpayers money. When they offered our members a spot in their plan, they thought we should pay more out of pocket than managers who make far higher salaries. It’s just so disrespectful how they have treated our members during these negotiations.”

Joel Benton, attorney for Jackson County, said Oregon law allows for union workers to strike, and he said the county is prepared to provide essential services if a strike were to occur.

“We’re not going to interfere with their right to strike,” Benton said.

The main sticking point is the insurance plan, he said.

“We definitely are far apart about the best means to provide health insurance for our employees,” Benton said.

But, he said, the county didn’t select the current health plan, pointing out it was selected through the union.

“The county’s only obligation is to set a dollar amount,” Benton said. “The current plan is the plan they picked.”

The county has offered to provide the same health plan that management employees currently receive, which would be $49.45 a month for a family plus a maximum out of pocket of $2,250.

Most county workers, except those in management or law enforcement, are part of the union, Benton said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.