County employees rally for better health coverage

Union contract set to expire in three days; workers seek increase in retirement benefits

SAN MATEO — Hundreds of county workers from library assistants to department of child support staff rallied outside the county’s public hospital Wednesday to protest what they called inequitable health benefits.

Members from the Service Employees International Union, Local 175 and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 82, two unions representing approximately 4,000 county employees chanted slogans, blew whistles and held up signs outside the San Mateo Medical Center in San Mateo during the lunch hour. The unions’ current four-year contract expires at midnight on Sunday, county officials said.

Union negotiators want to overhaul the current contract, creating a system similar to those in other Bay Area counties in which employees and management receive the same retirement health benefits. The union also wants to end a county policy — which it says is apparently unique in the Bay Area — that ties employee retirement health benefits to the number of unused sick days an employee accrues, which essentially caps payments after about five years, contract negotiator Lance Henderson said.

“It’s discriminatory,” Irma Compton, who has worked in the county planning division for a decade, said of tying benefits to sick leave. In particular, pregnant mothers or adults who must take time off to care for sick parents suffer when their benefits are reduced because of the amount of time they take off, Compton said.

Overhauling the system, however, could require unforeseen increases in contributions from the county as health care costs increase, wreaking havoc on long-term budgeting and possibly resulting in deficits, according to county Assistant Personnel Director Tim Sullivan.

The union proposal would cost the county $100 million more, while the county proposal would be a $50 million increase from the current retirement health benefits, officials said.

Instead, the county is offering a “major increase” in the estimated $200 a month an employee receives in retirement health benefits. But under the proposal a two-tiered system would be established, with all new employees given only the option of contributing to a retirement health care savings account they could take with them if they quit, Sullivan said. The county would contribute to the account, but how much would have to be negotiated with the union.

Representatives from the union said there is no immediate plan to strike and they anticipate negotiating into the weekend in hopes of reaching an agreement they can send to their membership for ratification.

Union members are also pushing for increased pay, Henderson said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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