Workers in six of Luzerne County government’s 10 unions receive special bonuses every year simply because they’ve stayed with the county for years, while other employees have no such longevity awards.
Other workplace conditions also vary. Employees work anywhere from 32.5 to 40 hours per week, pay flat monthly contributions or 10 percent toward health care and have sick-day allotments ranging from 12 to 18 per year.
Only two perks are the same for all employees, union or not: the granting of 12 paid holidays per year and $50,000 in life insurance coverage.
County council members will discuss this hodgepodge of benefits tonight as they start setting ideal workforce standards.
County Manager Robert Lawton asked council to set priorities so the administration has direction and can gradually implement them in future union contracts.
Changes can be imposed on the county’s roughly 300 non-union workers without negotiation. However, some county officials have said it would be unfair to immediately force all new standards on this group of employees when it will take several rounds of union contracts — perhaps decades — to fully implement the changes for workers bound by collective-bargaining agreements.
The administration and council will have the opportunity to make significant headway in changes this year because six of the county’s 10 union agreements expire Dec. 31. These expiring contracts cover roughly 900 of the county’s 1,500 employees.
New contracts must be negotiated with unionized assistant district attorneys/public defenders, prison workers, the rank-and-file residual unit and children-and-youth, aging and mental-health employees.
Of the six unions, the assistant district attorneys/public defenders and prison are the only ones with the right to binding arbitration if negotiations reach an impasse. The remaining four have the right to strike.
Council Chairman Tim McGinley said he expects extensive council discussion about work hours, health-care contributions and the standardization of other benefits, such as sick and vacation days and longevity.
Council members have proposed switching all workers to 40-hour weeks and increasing health-care contributions to 20 percent.
The uniformity of workforce benefits has become increasingly important as departments merge and require cross-training under home rule, McGinley said.
“I’d like to see real standardization of contracts,” McGinley said.
Analysis in some areas will be required, he said. For example, the county will be expected to pay more if workers are required to put in more hours, he said. Federal health-care changes must be researched to ensure changes comply with new federal mandates, he said.
Paula Schnelly, who represents three county unions, including the residual unit with a contract expiring the end of the year, said the county can present “anything” at the bargaining table.
“All items are negotiable. The key is to present it. We’ve had problems in the past where things were not presented to the union,” said Schnelly, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME.
Schnelly said her union workers are “open” to working more hours but would have to be paid. Some council members are pushing for 40-hour work weeks, but management “keeps telling us there’s no money to pay for that,” she said.
County Controller Walter Griffith said the overall cost of each benefit adds up — something he’s been pointing out for years.
For example, the county spent nearly half a million dollars — $494,339 to be exact — on length-of-service bonuses and $351,617 on uniform allowances last year, he said.
The county paid union employees at least $2.95 million in vacation leave and $2.28 million in paid sick time in 2012, Griffith said. The totals for non-union workers: $707,253 for vacation and $433,711 for sick.
Employees typically receive five personal days per year. Assistant district attorneys/public defenders receive four, while prison workers have six.
The county paid union workers $823,619 in personal days last year, while non-union employees received $170,516 in such compensation.
Griffith said he believes the county should reduce days off before paying to increase their hours.
“If the idea is to increase productivity, we should cut back the amount of time off that we are giving them,” Griffith said.