Bethlehem Press

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

NORCO-Six union contracts approved

Monday, December 24, 2018 by Bernie O’Hare Special to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

At its last meeting of the year on Dec. 13, Northampton County Council unanimously approved six union contracts for a large portion of the county’s 2,200 employees .

“They are the greatest!” said Executive Lamont McClure.of the workforce. “They’re worth more money than we’re about to pay them.” He added workers understand “the taxpayers are not a money tree.”

Four of these contracts are with the Court-Related Non-professional, Court-Appointed Non-professional, Residual Non-professional and Youth Detention Center bargaining units. All are a part of AFSCME. Their previous contracts expired at the end of last year. Under new three-year contracts, these four unions are each receiving what is known as a step increase for 2018. This is a 4 and one-half percent pay hike and is retroactive until the beginning of 2018. In 2019 and 2020, there will be 2 percent raises. Employees already at the top step will get a cash payout of $1,750 for 2018.

Fiscal Affairs Director Steve Barron said the retroactive pay hike will likely take place in 2019.

The Gracedale Union, which consists of all union employees except for registered nurses, expires at the end of this year. In 2019, Gracedale workers will see a step increase, followed by 2 percent raises in 2020 and 2021.

Several years ago, Gracedale workers gave up their paid lunches to help keep the then struggling nursing home afloat. Under the new contract, Gracedale workers will get them back. Human Resources Director Elizabeth Kelly said that the union gave up three benefits in return. One perk is a sick leave bonus paid to part-time workers, even though they have no sick days. Another is something known as “99” days. This enables employees to take up to five unpaid personal days every year. Some employees were taking more, which established a practice. Under the new contract, employees who abuse the “99” day perk will be disciplined. Finally, changes have been made to Friday shift differentials.

The final union contract is with the Human Services PSSU Union, which is part of SEIU. Employees there are getting a retroactive step increase in 2018, followed by 2 percent raises in 2019 and 2020. Because a step increase in Human Services is only about 2.25 percent compared to the 4.5 percent with the other unions,the county is also agreeing to make up the difference with cash.

Executive Lamont McClure said the new contracts eliminate the gap insurance employees were being forced to pay in their healthcare coverage In addition, two new health plans are being offered. Both are “Preferred Provider Organization” (PPO) plans. These allow participants to visit in-network physicians or healthcare provider swithout first obtaining a referral from a primary care physician. According to HR Director Kelly, these packages provide more favorable prices and better coverage than other plans.

The first of these, called PPO400, is described by Kelly as a “traditional” PPO plan with a $400 deductible for single members and an $800 deductible for family coverage. The second PPO has higher deductibles ($2,000 for single, $4,000 for family), but enables employees to establish Health Savings Accounts. Single employees can contribute up to $3,500 per year, while those with family coverage can pay in $7,000 per year. The county is also willing to fund these accounts up to $1,250 for single coverage HSAs, and $2,500 for family.

Kelly pointed out that HSAs are portable, meaning that if an employee leaves to work somewhere else, he can take the HSA with him.

After these contracts were approved by county council, McClure thanked them for “unanimously validating the dignity of the worker.”

These new contracts mean that the county’s payroll will increase $848,048 this year, and $2.6 million in 2020.

About 70 percent of the county’s work force is union. Contracts with the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association and corrections officers are unresolved. Other bargaining units include registered nurses, detectives and court-appointed professionals

In other business, a director of treatment at the Juvenile Justice center was finally approved by unanimous vote. Council member Lori Vargo Heffner had previously imposed all kinds of roadblocks. She suddenly became “comfortable’ with the appointment after Judge Stephen Baratta advised her in a four-page letter that she was interfering with the courts.

Also, despite claiming she had the votes and rallying her supporters to attend the meeting and speak in favor of a tabled resolution condemning the use of plastic straws and bags, council member Tara Zrinski has decided to wait until next year to pusue it. She has said she wants county municipalities to use the resolution as a template for an enforceable ban. Bethlehem’s Kathy Fox and Dr. Breena Holland spoke in support of the ban.

Finally, at the request of council member John Cusick, council approved $5,000 grants from its contingency fund to The Center for Animal Health and Welfare and the Saucon Valley Community Center. Both are nonprofits.

Council member Kevin Lott spoke highly of both organizations.