Ruling extends N.J. public workers’ increased health care contributions

TRENTON — Hundreds of thousands of public workers could continue to make higher contributions toward their health insurance premiums for several more years under a new ruling by the state agency that governs public employer-employee relations.

The decision by the Public Employment Relations Commission delays when public employee unions can use contract negotiations to attempt to reduce their share of health care premiums.

Attorneys familiar with the case say it will affect public workers across New Jersey. The state’s largest teachers union is already vowing the appeal the Aug. 13 decision.

In 2011, the state adopted a pension and benefit reform law that forced workers to pay more for their pensions and health care benefits and touched off a bitter fight between unions and the Christie administration.

The law raised employee health care contributions over four years from 1.5 percent of their pay to between 3 percent and 35 percent of their health care premium, depending on a worker’s salary.

But there was a question as to how long the public workers would be required to make the higher health premium contribution — and when the issue could be returned to the bargaining table.

Last year, the Clementon Board of Education asked PERC to weigh in on a dispute with the local teachers union. In that school district, the final year of the four-year phase-in of higher health insurance contributions coincided with the first year of a new contract. The teachers union — the Clementon Education Association — argued that after four years, health benefits should be back in play at the bargaining table. The school district said they should remain in place until the next round of contract talks.

PERC agreed with the school board ruled that the union can’t yet negotiate premium contributions.

“The Legislature’s intent was to ensure that public employers and employees were sharing the cost of health insurance premiums, and this decision further cements the Legislature’s intent. This enables public employers the tool to maximize that contribution for as long a period as possible, and that’s a great benefit to taxpayers and public employers throughout the state,” said Melissa Ferrara, an attorney who represented the Clementon School Board of Education before PERC.

Ferrara said the ruling could effect state and local public workers statewide.

The New Jersey Education Association, the largest public union in the state, will appeal the decision, spokesman Steve Wollmer said Friday.

He said the pension reform law “was unique in that it took away temporarily the right of public employees to bargain over their health care costs. When you lose a right, everyday that you don’t have it Is a challenge for you.”

The New Jersey School Board Association applauded the ruling, which also said that the higher contributions levels are the starting point when negotiations begin anew.

The 2011 benefits reform law saved local boards of education millions of dollars, “which can be applied toward educational programming and controlling property taxes,” Executive Director Lawrence Feinsod said in a statement. “PERC has clarified the fact that these contribution levels are not automatically eliminated and must remain in effect for the duration of any contract that began prior to the sunset of (the law).”

The higher contributions levels were set to end this year in about a third of school districts statewide, the school boards association said. The implementation of the 2011 health care changes was staggered depending on districts’ contracts.

At 1.5 percent, teachers making about $68,000 enrolled in the School Employees Health Benefits Program paid $1,000 toward their health care premium. Those teachers’ new contribution is more than $5,600 a year, according to data from the school boards group.

Teachers in wealthier school districts could be paying up to $8,000 a year toward their health care, Wollmer added.

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Samantha Marcus may be reached at smarcus@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @samanthamarcus. Find NJ.com Politics on Faceboo

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