JACKSON COUNTY, Ore. — Contract negotiations between Jackson County and the public employees union have reached an impasse, according to statements from both sides released on Friday.
The County and employee representatives have been sparring over pay and benefits for six months, according to SEIU Local 503, the union that has been representing Jackson County public employees.
"The Jackson County Employees Association's bargaining team declared impasse on Tuesday because they felt that after 6 months at the bargaining table, continuing negotiations would not lead to fair wages and an affordable healthcare plan for employees," said Melissa Unger, executive director of SEIU Local 503. "It is our hope that a deadline for negotiations will lead to a fair settlement that the hard working employees of Jackson County can live with."
According to Unger, Jackson County employees earn wages that are between 13 and 28 percent less than other counties in Oregon.
"As a result, the county regularly loses talented people to other jobs. That turnover harms the services everyone in Jackson County relies on," Unger said.
A statement from County officials, however, says that those comparisons are being made to counties like Clackamas, Lane, and Marion.
"The County does not believe that these Counties are the best to compare with Jackson County," officials said. "The County believes that the other five Counties — Deschutes, Douglas, Linn, Josephine, and Klamath — are more comparable in nature to Jackson County. Currently, the County’s overall pay plan is right at the average of these other Counties."
According to data from the 2010 Census, Jackson County is more populous than any of the counties listed by County officials. It also has a smaller population than any of those reportedly cited by the union.
But the true sticking point in negotiations, Unger says, comes down to healthcare.
"The current plan is so expensive that many low wage employees can’t afford to use it," Unger said. The union has been pushing for County officials to take up the statewide healthcare pool offered by the Public Employees Benefits Board (PEBB), which they say would both make healthcare more affordable and save taxpayers almost $1 million per year.
"It’s a win/win, but the county won’t take the deal," Unger said.
County officials say that they have offered a healthcare plan that would give all public employees who work at least 30 hours per week the same insurance benefits that managers and non-represented employees currently receive — with a $49.95 premium, $750 deductible, $20 copays, and a maximum out-of-pocket cost of $2,250.
"The County is concerned, based on Oregon health insurance industry research, that the PEBB may not be sustainable as it currently exists," officials said. "In addition, when hard times have hit the State of Oregon, the Executive and Legislative Branches have used PEBB’s reserves to balance the general fund. If PEBB’s ability to continue to operate becomes unstable, the State could simply ask for more contributions to make up the losses leaving our tax payers and our employees to pick up the tab."
Declaring an impasse begins a 30-day cooling off period, Unger said, during which negotiations can continue. Once that time is up, the County can make a final offer, and employees can choose to go on strike if they don’t accept the final offer.
"We hope that the impending deadline will lead to a resolution at the bargaining table that includes fair wages and affordable healthcare for county employees," Unger said.