MARTINEZ -- A Contra Costa public employee union's demand for 12.75 percent higher wages has cost the county a chance to open and run a state health insurance exchange call center and the 205 jobs that went with it, top county officials said.

The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously rejected a state contract offer to run the call center, citing an impasse with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 512.

The union wanted the higher pay for six permanent call center supervisor positions its leaders said carried extra job responsibilities and possible involuntary reassignment from existing county jobs.

Despite appeals from Assembly Speaker John Perez's office and state-level AFSCME union officials for a deal, county supervisors said Local 512 refused to budge.

"It is indeed sad that people who need a job won't be able to get one," said Supervisor Karen Mitchoff of Pleasant Hill. "Local 512 leadership should be ashamed of themselves."

"I'm alarmed. I'm ashamed. I'm disturbed," said Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho of Discovery Bay. "We have thousands of fabulous employees, and for this call center to be held hostage is unconscionable."

Local 512 spokesman Richard Cabral called the supervisors' characterizations misleading.


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The union has offered to go into mediation and has said for weeks it would forgo the pay differential if the county agreed it would not transfer unwilling current workers into the call center, which would have operated six days a week under extended hours, Cabral said.

"One of my members who works in Antioch and lives in Antioch who is forced to commute to Richmond, for example, would be taking a pay cut," Cabral said. "None of my members work Saturdays or do shift work. I'm not going to allow my folks to be punished just because the county wants to play this game."

The state plans to open three call centers in California staffed with public employees by the end of the year. Workers at the centers will enroll the thousands of residents who will be eligible for health care coverage when the federal Affordable Care Act goes into effect in 2014.

The California Health Benefit Exchange selected Contra Costa in December, and supervisors were expected Tuesday to choose a site in Richmond or Concord.

But while those two competing cities and building landlords lobbed offers and counteroffers back and forth to try to woo the call center, the county was pursuing mandatory sign-offs from four unions.

A labor dispute had already put the call center on life support once.

Two weeks ago, Service Employees International Union Local 1021 was demanding more generous health benefits, but its leaders backed down. It and the other two county unions have agreed to bring on the new employees under the same contract terms as current workers.

The bottom line matters because the state will not reimburse the county for expenses it considers excessive, said board Chairman Federal Glover of Pittsburg.

"Some of our unions saw this as an opportunity to negotiate their overall contracts rather than bring jobs to Contra Costa County," Glover said.

With Contra Costa out, the state is "aggressively" looking at other options which include expanding its Rancho Cordova or Fresno call centers or finding another county operator, said Covered California spokesman Dana Howard, who still left the door open a crack for the county.

"The door isn't entirely shut until we have an alternative plan," Howard said. "I don't have a hard and fast date, but we don't have long."

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