State workers say health care concessions are biggest worry

Questions about changes to their health coverage are the biggest concern state employees have about the $1.6 billion concession deal between the Malloy Administration and union leaders, workers who attended a  closed-door briefing at the State Armory Saturday told reporters afterward.

“People are always concerned about change. None of us do change well,” Paul Kalajian of Windham, a carpenter for the University of Connecticut, said after the 2 1/2 hour session during which union leaders fielded more than 60 questions.

Steve MacSweeney of Watertown, a plumber at Southbury Training School, said he appreciated union leaders’ forthrightness. “We were provided a chance to ask questions and the questions were answered,” he said, adding that despite some misconceptions some employees cling to, he’s convinced “we’re not losing our health care.”

“They dispelled some myths,” Cindy Lewis of Southbury, a secretary for the UConn Health Center. “Health care is the biggest part of my wage. It affects my future and the future for my husband.”

Ratification of the concession deal by state workers is key to balancing the state budget for the next two years. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy warned Thursday that failure of the agreement would result in “a major restructuring” of state government, with far more layoffs than the 4,700 his administration threatened last month.

Union leaders have been cautiously optimistic that the deal win ratification, but have warned that they need time to eliminate a lot of confusion about the package. Nearly all of Saturday’s meeting was devoted to directly answering workers’ questions rather than making any formal presentation, State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition spokesman Matt O’Connor said afterward.

Voting on the concessions by state workers isn’t expected to be completed until late June.

The concession ratification process is a complicated one, given the varying rules set of the 15 unions, and the 34 bargaining units contained within them.

Wage givebacks, for example, are decided on a unit-by-unit basis. If one bargaining unit declines to forfeit wages, another still can agree to do so. That occurred in 2009, when all bargaining units agreed to a one-year wage freeze except two–those representing Correction Department guards and their immediate supervisors.

Concessions tied to health insurance and retirement benefits are decided following a collective voting process, and if adopted, would apply to all union members. Even though bargaining units within two unions rejected the pay freeze in 2009, their parent unions along with all others within SEBAC approved health insurance and other benefit concessions, which were implemented.

Two conditions must be met for coalition approval of benefit concessions: At least 14 of the 15 unions within the coalition must adopt that portion of the tentative deal, and at least 80 percent of the total state employees casting ballots must endorse the deal.

Steve Curran, a Department of Correction officer with 21 years of state experience, said the two-year wage freeze in the latest tentative deal is “understandable” to him, but a concern for some.

But Curran agreed that the health care provisions, and particularly a new “value-based health plan” that imposes higher premiums and deductibles on workers who don’t receive regular physicals and other health care screenings, is a bigger problem for many.

“The idea of being told to go to the doctor once a year is something we need to warm up to,” he said.

So would the correction officers reject the latest deal? “I’m not at liberty to say anything like that,” Curran said.

Workers who agreed to be interviewed also were unanimous in warning that most state employees feel unfairly vilified by state officials, the news media or the general public, although they were less certain about whether that would be a factor in the final outcome.

“The employees of this state didn’t create the problem. That was a pretty common theme” in the meeting, Kalajian said, adding though, that the mood Saturday “was generally pretty positive.”

“We do a lot for a lot less than people think we do,” said Lewis, who with just three years of service has to worry both about concessions and the threat of layoffs.

But given the sluggish economy and an earlier concession deal that froze state employee wages two years ago and imposed higher health care costs and furlough days both this year and last, Lewis noted that “I haven’t really gotten a raise since I’ve been with the state.”

Carson Wright of Hartford, a correction department employee with 10 years of service, said he is worried about layoffs, both for himself and friends, as well as the cost of considerable givebacks, adding many state workers are in the same fix.

“This is your life,” he said, adding some “have worked 20 or 30 years. Change is painful and I can’t believe the attitude of the public toward state employees. It’s rough out there.

“I just want everybody to be able to continue working.”