State officials want to remove health insurance benefits from new union contracts with state and local government workers, eliminating those items from Iowa’s collective bargaining law for public employees.
Gov. Terry Branstad said Monday the proposal is part of a plan being explored to have all of Iowa’s public employees, including those from the state, cities, counties and school districts, placed under one large health insurance program with the goal of providing quality coverage at a lower cost.
“The problem is that you have all these little contracts. If you have a few health problems, everybody’s premiums go through the roof,” Branstad told reporters. The concept being explored by state officials would establish a statewide health insurance plan for public employees that would be similar to the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System, known as IPERS, which provides pensions for public workers, he said.
“I think public employees understand IPERS and what a good program it is, and it is uniform for everybody,” Branstad said. “We are looking at: ‘Could we do that with health insurance?’ So we could provide good quality health care coverage and do it at a lot less cost. That is what we are examining.” IPERS’ pensions are not determined through collective bargaining under Iowa law, the governor noted.
Janet Phipps, director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, unveiled Branstad’s proposal in contract talks Monday with the State Police Officers Council, a bargaining unit representing about 600 sworn officers, including troopers, criminal investigation agents, drug enforcement agents, fire marshal’s agents and inspectors, as well as conservation officers and park rangers.
Phipps said her department’s proposal is based on the possibility that changes could be made in the state’s collective bargaining law for public employees during the 2017 session of the Iowa Legislature, which convenes in January. Under the proposal, the state would still agree to provide health and dental benefits to all eligible bargaining unit members, but the contract would no longer specify the level of benefits, which would be determined by state officials.
It’s expected that the Department of Administrative Services will make a similar proposal in contract talks Wednesday with Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents about 18,500 state workers. In addition, if the Legislature rewrites the state’s collective bargaining law, the changes could also apply to city, county and school district employees throughout Iowa.
Phipps told reporters she isn’t positive what the Legislature will decide. But with Republicans taking control of the Iowa Senate during the Nov. 8 elections, while growing their majority in the Iowa House, she said, there has been talk about changing the state’s collective bargaining law for public employees. Branstad, also a Republican, has repeatedly expressed concerns that Iowa’s collective bargaining laws are tilted in favor of public employees’ unions at the expense of taxpayers.
Under current Iowa law, any insurance is a mandatory subject of collective bargaining for public employees’ unions.
Jason Bardsley, a state trooper who is president of the State Police Officers Council, called the state’s proposal “very concerning,” particularly in light of the recent slayings of two police officers in Des Moines and Urbandale, and other attacks on law enforcement officers across the country.
“Insurance is a crucial piece of our benefits for our families and employees of the state of Iowa who go out every day and put their lives on the line. For that to be stripped away, it would be very concerning for our membership to have to worry about what would happen if something does happen,” Bardsley said.
Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, declined to comment Monday because his bargaining unit has not received a contract proposal yet from the Department of Administrative Services. AFSCME members now pay a minimum of $20 a month for health insurance, or 15 percent of premiums, plus deductibles.
Current health insurance coverage
The state currently pays 80 percent of health insurance coverage for members of the State Police Officers Council’s bargaining unit. In addition, members who participate in a wellness program receive a monthly reduction in their portion of the health insurance premium. The monthly reduction is currently set to ensure that the employee share of the family premium will be no more than 15 percent, and the union is asking that it be reduced to no more than 10 percent. The change would be commensurate with other contracts, union officials said.
The Department of Administrative Services’ contract proposal to the State Police Officers Council would provide a 1 percent increase in base pay for each of the next two years for bargaining unit members, and it would slightly revise increases in so-called “step” pay for workers who have not reached maximum pay levels. The State Police Officers Council has requested 3 percent increases in base pay for each of the next two years.
State Sen. Robert Hogg of Cedar Rapids, the new leader of the Iowa Senate Democratic Caucus, said Monday he believes the proposal to eliminate insurance benefits as a matter of collective bargaining for public employees is a bad idea.
“We have a collective bargaining law that has worked well for Iowa for as long as Chuck Grassley has been in the United States Congress, so for over four decades,” Hogg said. “We should continue to support our public employees who work hard and help the people of our state and do so much good for us. So I think it will be a mistake if they are just assuming that the Legislature will change these laws in 2017.”
Branstad offered a dissenting opinion, saying the current method of providing health insurance to Iowa’s public employees is inefficient and outdated.
“In 1974 when collective bargaining was passed, health care wasn’t a big expense. Today it is huge,” Branstad said. “So what we are saying is that we need to look at it in a new way so we are all on the same side of the table — the employees and the employers. The more we save here, the better we can do by not reducing the benefits, but by having a bigger pool and reducing the costs. That means that more resources are available for salaries and other things. I think it will really benefit the employees who are covered by it.”
Researching the Iowa collective bargaining law
Shortly after winning election in 2010, Branstad commissioned a study of Iowa’s public employees’ bargaining laws by Leon Shearer, an Iowa lawyer with a history of helping management address union issues. Shearer’s report concluded that Iowa’s bargaining structure for public employee unions ignores private-sector realities and comparisons between public- and private-sector compensation.
Although the state has a longstanding system to allow public employees to collectively bargain, the state’s actions over many years must be “severely criticized'” for allowing the creation of a limitation of management rights, plus creating a wage and benefit structure for public employees that exceeds what is found in the private sector, Shearer’s report said.
The Iowa Policy Project, a liberal think tank based in Iowa City, prepared its own study in 2011 that concluded that many claims about public workers’ compensation miss the mark on accuracy because they don’t make apples-to-apples comparisons.
“Public employees in Iowa in general receive less compensation in total pay and benefits than do similarly qualified employees in the private sector. They really see an earnings penalty for working in the public sector, given education, experience and other factors,” the report said.