If you're tired of reading about unhappy BART employees and contentious labor negotiations, you've come to the right place. Today's subject is unhappy Contra Costa County employees and contentious labor negotiations.

You can thank Professional & Technical Engineers Local 21, representing more than 800 midlevel county managers, for bringing this matter to our attention in a succinctly worded news release: "Contra Costa Employees May Strike over Unaffordable Healthcare Plans."

The timing of the threat is curious -- perhaps the union envied the attention lavished on BART -- because negotiations began more than a year ago, and employees have worked without a contract for three months. The issue is easier to grasp: The county's contribution toward health care premiums has been capped by contractual agreement since 2009, even as inflation has sent costs skyward.

The union reports that employees' outlay for a Kaiser Family Plan has increased from $246 to $607 per month. ("Contra Costa has the most expensive health care plan in the Bay Area offered by public employers," said union spokesman Sean Alten.) Public Employees Union Local 1, representing 2,000 rank-and-file county employees, doubtless would agree. It's been operating under the same terms and also seeks a new deal.

"The problem," said Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, "is we don't have the money."

The reason health care contributions were capped -- and many salaries cut or frozen -- is the county has fought for years to keep from drowning in red ink. Only recently have property tax revenues nudged upward.


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"We're now at a point where we're structurally sound," Mitchoff said, "but we don't have anything extra to give. I get the feeling that employees are saying, 'We're not as bad off as we were, so give us everything.'"

Supervisors are well aware of health care costs -- they subscribe to the same plans at the same rates as employees -- but they say they've been as generous as possible in deals they've offered: a $1,000-per-worker bonus at contract ratification and 2 percent raises for each of the next two years.

"Local 21 has left that money on the table since July 1," Mitchoff said. "Their average worker makes $77,000 per year, so you can figure out what 2 percent plus 2 percent plus $1,000 is. It's a good deal in these difficult financial times."

The union claims that similar public agencies throughout the region pay about 85 percent of employee medical costs, while Contra Costa is closer to 65 percent. It says employee recruitment and retention will suffer if the situation isn't remedied. It says a strike is around the corner if something doesn't give.

Mitchoff said she and her fellow supervisors are resolute about what they can offer, and modest salary hikes make the most sense. Agreeing to a higher percentage of unforeseeable medical expenses puts the county at risk.

"We're told by some of the labor hierarchy they can't give in on this because no else in the Bay Area does this," she said. "They say Contra Costa is bad and wrong because it's the only one that does this. I think there's some concern on their part that other agencies might follow our lead."

In the meantime, brace for more labor unrest. The story is familiar by now. Only the names have changed.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.