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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

State Workers And Shumlin Administration Battle Over Contract

The state employees union and the Shumlin Administration are at odds over drug benefits for retired workers. But the fight has become about much more than health care. And the union says the administration is trying to end-run the normal negotiating process.  

With the ink  barely dry on the latest collective bargaining agreement ratified by state workers last week, the Shumlin Administration already wants to alter the terms of the deal. Union officials say the integrity of its collective bargaining  is at stake.

The administration says the state can save between $700,000 and $1.1 million per year by changing the way retirees get their prescription drugs. And they say it won’t erode the quality of the retiree drug benefit.

Skeptical union negotiators rejected the proposal during contract negotiations. The administration signed the collective bargaining agreement anyway. But now it’s asking the Legislature to reach in and impose the new drug benefits.

Steve Howard, legislative director for the Vermont State employees Association, said the fight over benefits belongs at the negotiating table, not in the Statehouse.

“The way to resolve issues like this is in the collective bargaining process, with management and labor sitting across from each other,” Howard said. “The fact that we’re now in the legislative session and the administration has come in with a proposal that is counter to the principles of fairness and good faith in the bargaining process.”

Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said the savings would come from new federal subsidies, not a cut in benefits.

“Look, it’s not easy to find programs where you can generate three-quarters of a million dollars in annual saving without having any negative impact on Vermonters,” Spaulding said. “And this is one of those.”

Spaulding said his negotiating staff tried hard to get the VSEA to understand the importance of making the change. But he said the union’s hard-line position has left him no choice but to ask legislators to intervene.

“We tried to get this included in the past two collective bargaining agreements, and we were turned down point blank both times,” Spaulding said. “It’s very difficult for the Shumlin Administration in good faith not to let the Legislature know that Vermont is, in contrary to many other states and private employers, leaving money on the table.”

The administration wants to move retirees out of what’s known as the Retiree Drug Subsidy and into something called the Employer Group Waiver Plan. Both are federal programs, and both offer equivalent benefits. But one, according to Spaulding, offers significant financial benefits to the state. He said the teachers union a few years ago readily agreed to a similar change.

But Howard of the VSEA said the union has asked the administration to provide conclusive evidence showing the proposal won’t hurt retiree drug benefits. But he said the administration never delivered.

“If those facts bear out, those facts should be presented to us in a way that we can test them. And so far that has not happened,” Howard said. “We’ve learned a long time ago that just-trust-us strategy is not one that our members have much confidence in.”

Howard said that if the administration was so insistent that the drug benefits be altered, then it should have made a better case for it during the negotiating process.

“The rollout of this proposal has been clumsy at best,” he said. “It has not been respectful of the role of the union, and it’s been sloppy.”

"The roll out of this proposal has been clumsy at best." Steve Howard, Vermont State Employees Association

Rep. Donna Sweaney, a Windsor Democrat and chairwoman of the House Committee on Government operation, introduced legislation last week that would force the change on the union. But she said she isn’t looking to “ram this down anyone’s throat.”

“My intention is to bring this into the open and into the light for discussion,” Sweaney said. “It’s about: 'is it possible to find savings to the state without jeopardizing the benefit of the retirees?' When we’re turning over every stone, it would be shortsighted of us not to look at everything. So my hope is they can look at the whole thing and see whether or not it makes sense.”

If the administration and the union can’t get on the same page, then Sweaney said Spaulding likely won’t find an enforcer in the Legislature.

“As far as I’m concerned nothing will happen,” Sweaney said. “I won’t push it.”

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