CORRECTION (Published 2/26/2013)

The Inside Politics column incorrectly reported that the Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 was one of the unions demanding more generous benefits and work rules for new workers at a planned county-run state health insurance exchange call center. Three other county unions are demanding that call center workers receive more generous pay and work rules than other county workers. Local 21 has agreed to the call center plan as requested by the county.

Even as Concord and Richmond compete for a new state health insurance call center and its 205 jobs, a labor dispute between Contra Costa County and its unions could jettison the whole deal.

County unions are demanding more generous benefits, and relaxed work rules for their prospective new members, and they hold a powerful card.

If the two sides cannot reach a deal very soon, the state will likely take its call center contract offer elsewhere. The state wants the center leased, equipped, staffed, tested and operational by July 1 and ready for open enrollment on Oct. 1.

The state is paying 100 percent of the call center costs for three years, but it isn't a blank check. The unions want the county to pay 80 percent of the newcomers' health insurance premiums and let employees set their own work hours.

Both run counter to the county's practices and the state may not pay.


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Through negotiations, supervisors capped several years ago county contributions to employees' and retirees' premiums at 2011 levels, which shifted all subsequent cost increases onto workers.

Reverting to a percentage split -- 80 percent county, 20 percent employee -- would drive expenses and its unfunded retiree medical care liability back up.

As for letting workers set their own hours, really? Who gets to do that?

The state contract sets out specific operating hours Monday through Saturday and without scheduling authority, the county may not be able to get the job done.

Unions rarely advocate for unequally compensated groups or unevenly applied work rules, so what's really going on?

It's pure leverage, said Supervisor Karen Mitchoff of Pleasant Hill.

Contracts expire June 30 for the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, Professional Technical Engineers Local 21 and American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees locals 512 and 2700.

"The unions think if we cave in order to get these new jobs, we'll have to give them the same deal in their contracts," she said. "I know our employees are in difficult straits, but what about the people who are unemployed and would be happy to come to work under the same rules as everyone else?"

What kind of jobs are we talking about?

Under the county's salary structure, the 180 entry level customer service agent jobs pay $15 to $18 an hour, or $32,000 to $37,000 a year, plus benefits. The 13 midlevel supervisors earn $26 an hour. Like all county employees, they would pay toward their benefits and pensions.

Surviving in the Bay Area on $32,000 a year is tough and the county cannot shift all premium hikes onto workers forever or skilled people will go elsewhere.

But it is unconscionable for the unions to jeopardize new Contra Costa jobs in a risky political strategy at the same time the county is still in the economic woods.

Get the jobs first. Then fight for all your members.

just what I always wanted: Nat, Nat, Nat. You are such a thoughtful guy.

That's Richmond Councilman Nat Bates, of course.

He sent constituents a free commemorative presidential inauguration invitation featuring his dapper self and President Barack Obama standing in front of the White House. (See the invite on PoliticsWithLisaV.blogspot.com.)

Isn't Photoshop grand?

GOT POLITICS? Read PoliticsWithLisaV.blogspot.com:

  • Newly minted Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, wants to give military veterans a specially designated driver's license that will serve as proof of their service.

  • Watch pension reformer John Dickenson lift the veil on unfunded retirement system debts at the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association breakfast.

    AND FINALLY: Sheriff David Livingston is indefinitely postponing plans to move his department out of the three floors they occupy in the county's aging downtown Martinez office tower and into privately leased Walnut Creek offices.

    The agency needs a more efficient operation center, Undersheriff Mike Casten recently told the county supervisor's finance subcommittee.

    No, you don't, responded the committee's two supervisors. They nixed the idea outright.

    Rent and other expenses in the new offices would cost the department an additional $5.6 million over the next decade.

    "When and if we receive more money, I would rather see it used to hire beat officers," Supervisor John Gioia said.

    So, John, when the sheriff asks for more deputies during upcoming budget hearings, you can't say you didn't see that coming.

    Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com, politicswithlisav.blogspot.com or Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.