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Relief and regret over state workers' contract agreement
State workers are expressing a mixture of relief and regret at a tentative two-year contract offer reached over the weekend. The agreement averts a strike, which seems welcomed by all sides. And although state officials say the deal provides fair and balanced compensation, state workers say they would like to have seen more.

St. Paul, Minn. — Details of the contract agreements are filtering out to workers throughout state government. The plans still shift rising health care costs onto state employees -- but not as dramatically as was previously proposed.

State workers resoundingly rejected plans last month to boost out-of-pocket medical expenses as high as $5,000 per year for families. The new plan caps those same costs at $3,300. And while health care costs go up, the plan offers no cost-of-living adjustments for wages.

A Health Department employee in downtown St. Paul -- who asked that her name not be used -- says she'll certainly feel the pinch.

It would be different if they said, 'OK, we're going to hike your pay and cut insurance.' Because that means, you know, real, out-of-pocket expense wouldn't increase. But now it's going to increase. A lot.
- Michael Martin, state employee

"Even with the gas prices -- you can notice gas prices fluctuate from week-to-week -- groceries, just basic things. We're not talking about extra leisure or pleasure things, you know. We're talking about just basic living. It's going to be hard to keep up with that," she says.

This employee is one of roughly 17,000 clerical, custodial, and maintenance employees represented by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 6.

Although there's no across-the-board wage boost, employees are still eligible for raises based on seniority or promotion. State officials say 70 percent of MAPE members and nearly half of AFSCME workers are eligible for those "step" increases.

Overall, state workers seem to be relieved that prospects for a strike seem to have vanished. Todd Carroll is a landscape architect for the state Transportation Deparment, based in St. Paul. He says he voted against the state's initial offer, but nonetheless felt uneasy about the prospect of disruptive and costly strike.

"There is sense of relief from that standpoint, because a strike is not something you really want to do. It's a last step measure," says Carroll. "You might think of it, if you're at home or if you're staying at home during a strike, that, 'Oh, it's a little bit of a vacation.' Except for you're not getting paid. It's kind of a tough thing."

Carroll is represented by the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, which covers nearly 11,000 technical workers, accountants, and similarly skilled employees. He says he hasn't had a chance to study the new proposal, but he's encouraged to hear the out-of-pocket health care costs won't rise as fast as originally proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration.

Pawlenty says the package offered over the weekend continues to provide excellent coverage -- and in many cases exceeds what most Minnesotans find in the private sector.

"It does reflect the times that we live in. Most other people are in a very similar situation in terms of their wages and benefits. And our state employees need to be consistent with what's going on in the rest of the workplace," says Pawlenty.

Carroll and others openly acknowledge that state-sponsored benefits often outpace private sector alternatives. Michael Martin, a secretary at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, is an AFSCME member. He works part-time and receives benefits through his wife's private health plan, but he says he'd rather have the state package.

Martin also says that it's not fair to compare state employment with private employment. The state may have better benefits and job security, but he says wages are often below the norm. And Martin says the contract's wage freeze only exacerbates that.

"It would be different if they said, 'OK, we're going to hike your pay and cut insurance.' Because that means, you know, real, out-of-pocket expense wouldn't increase. But now it's going to increase. A lot," says Martin.

Each of the workers says he or she will need time to study the tentative agreements before voting yes or no. The boards of MAPE and AFSCME are expected to make their vote recommendations later this week, and union members will vote next month.

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