Union OKs limit

Posted: Friday, April 28, 2000

The largest of the state employees' unions has agreed to a change in one of its contract terms.

However, Sen. Tim Kelly, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said that change is not enough to convince the majority of his colleagues to fund contracts agreed to with a dozen state workers' unions. In fact, it may make the contracts less attractive, he said.

Leaders of the Alaska State Employees Association, representing more than 7,000 state workers from clerks to doctors, agreed Thursday to an annual cap on the amount of sick leave they can cash in.

That change will have to go back out to members for a vote, but ASEA Business Manager Chuck O'Connell said he's confident members will agree to it.

``What we have done is we have polled our members and they're overwhelmingly agreeable that we go ahead and put a cap on the leave, which resolves the perceived problem,'' O'Connell said. ``If they fund the contracts, we'll ratify it.''

Legislators have expressed alarm that the new labor contract the administration negotiated with ASEA allowed members to convert up to 50 percent of their accumulated sick leave to cash. Members who chose to take advantage of that provision would move to a new system that provided fewer total leave days.

The sick leave conversion could cost the state up to $22 million if all members cashed out their eligible sick leave. But administration officials have said they don't believe the actual amount cashed out will be that high, and they believe reserve accounts set up to pay for leave cash-in are adequate.

The change the union agreed to caps the amount of sick leave that could be cashed in annually at 75 hours. The change was intended to address fears of a ``run on the bank,'' in which the state could face a large bill at once.

However, Kelly, an Anchorage Republican, said capping the amount that can be cashed out annually doesn't change the long-term costs of the provision. When those workers quit state government, they would be able to collect what's owed them. In fact, he said, they could cash out their leave at a higher rate of pay.

Kelly said a majority of senators are unwilling to vote for the overall package the Knowles administration negotiated with all 12 state labor unions.

The Knowles package calls for $1,200 bonuses this year, a 2 percent raise next year and a 3 percent raise the following year. It also calls for increases in the state's contribution to health care, reaching $630 by the final year of the three-year contract.

Kelly has suggested an alternative that he says would save the state $20 million over three years: $800 bonuses this year, 2 percent raises in the following two years and increases to health care benefits topping out at $600.

That alternative was floated in a bill dealing with non-union workers that passed the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.

Knowles on Thursday blasted senators for what he called circumventing the law on negotiating with employees, saying it calls for the administration to negotiate contracts and the Legislature to simply decide whether to fund them.

Kelly views the situation differently. The Supreme Court has ruled the Legislature has to appropriate money for contracts or they are rejected. So far, no money has been appropriated, which means so far they have been rejected, he said.

He views himself as offering an alternative that may avert a labor strike. ``We are interested in trying to find a solution to the contract impasse,'' Kelly said.

He complained the contracts were negotiated without public input. ``The public doesn't know what's in those contracts. They weren't invited to the meetings.''

Commissioner of Administration Bob Poe said, in fact, he did try to talk with legislators about the contracts before they were settled. He said he sent a letter to the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee in June 1999 asking for an opportunity to brief legislators on negotiations.

Poe said the committee responded by saying the administration has the responsibility to negotiate labor contracts and the Legislature has the responsibility to review and approve monetary terms of any agreements.

``He didn't invite me,'' Kelly said. ``But I don't consider the Legislature public anyway. There were no public hearings on these contracts.''

Kelly did say Thursday the Legislature may want to look next year at changing the section of the public employee relations law that addresses the Legislature's role in negotiations.

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