State Budget vs. Union Benefits
By Christopher Robinson
Mediation continues in Salem between two major labor unions and Governor John Kitzhaber’s team over public employee benefits. The governor is seeking concessions from SEIU and AFSCME regarding the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and the state employees’ health insurance plan.
PERS members pay 6% of their salary towards retirement. Currently, the state pays for this mandate as part of a previous deal. The state also pays 100% of employees’ health insurance premiums.
It’s no secret that Oregon is facing budget shortfalls, including financing for public employee benefits. Attempts at legislative reform have largely failed. State negotiators initially aimed to end the 6% pick-up and to require that employees pay 5% of insurance premiums. They have since dropped the pick-up demand.
Union supporters argue state employees have already made concessions by forgoing certain wage increases in favor of hardier retirement benefits. However, this still does not account for free health insurance premiums or the wealth of other benefits union membership provides. SEIU Local 503 members are eligible to receive, among other things, free life insurance and legal compensation. AFSCME members get heating oil and rental car discounts.
The worst case scenario of not being able to fund state employee benefits is bankruptcy. Making a few concessions wouldn’t be a bad idea, and Oregon taxpayers likely would agree.