Thursday, May 03, 2007

NH State Employees

This past Tuesday, May 2, the NH State Employees Union (SEIU) had a demonstration in front of the NH State House. About 700 people came out to listen to the Makem Brothers sing union songs, and hear speeches, and messages of support. The sun was out, and it was a pleasant place to be – hanging out with the purple clad state workers in Concord. What’s the problem? Their contract negotiations have reached a standstill. Governor Lynch wants state workers to pay 7.5 percent of their health care premium costs, and double their co-pays. The wage increases they are being offered would not offset the costs of the health care concessions.

You may have heard that state workers have “the Cadillac” of health care plans. You may have even heard that said quite disparagingly. I, for one, believe that our state workers should have a great health care plan. I think everyone in the United States should have the “Cadillac plan.” Why wouldn’t we want the people who keep our state running to be healthy and well paid? Contrary to what many believe – rank and file state employees are not particularly well paid. Some are eligible for food stamps, which should be a source of embarrassment to us. The 2006 NH Basic Needs and Livable Wage Study found that for a family of four, both parents needed to be earning $11.69 per hour, to be able to cover the basic necessities: food, rent, utilities, basic telephone service, clothing, transportation, child care, health care, household expenses, and a small allowance for personal expenses. Note that there is no provision for saving, or for emergency needs. A number of our state employees are not making enough to meet the needs as defined in this study.

You may have heard that according to a report released last year by the National Conference of State Legislatures on state employee benefits, that NH has the costliest health care premiums in the nation. That’s where the story began and ended. What you didn’t hear is that the NH system is self insured. The state does not pay premiums, in the way an employer would. The state sets its own rates. The premium in NH has included an overcharge, to build up a reserve account. That reserve account is at nearly $48 million. The premium has also included charges for private consultants and administrators. The state employees have no control over determining the cost of the premiums they are being asked to pay. It seems possible; even likely, that the way the plan is being administered may be the cause for these high costs. A responsible course of action would be to look at how the plan is administered, and how the costs could be lowered. Asking people (some of whom make less than $10.00 an hour) to double their out of pocket expenses, should be the course of last resort.

State employees are all around us. We probably all interact with at least one every day. State employees give you change at tollbooths – and NH toll workers are friendly and polite, which is not necessarily the case in other states. State employees run the big plows on the highways in the winter. They answer the phones at the Department of Motor Vehicles – sometimes. They are nurses in our state hospitals; they are corrections officers in our state prisons. They are working at the Veteran’s home, Fish and Game, the Division of Employment Security, the Lottery, the DWI Multiple Offender program, and the Community Technical Colleges - just to name a few. These are the people who keep our state running smoothly and efficiently. Some state agencies are perpetually understaffed (like the DMV) in the name of keeping the budget under control. It’s easier to do without employees, than it is for the state to accept that it needs more revenue in the coffers.

I talked to a lot of folks at the SEIU rally. These were not wild eyed radicals. I didn’t see any limos parked around the perimeter of the State House. The “designer” clothes on view were purple SEIU tee shirts. These are folks who are proud to work for the state of NH. What they want – a decent wage and good health care benefits does not seem like too much to ask for. As it stands, the negotiations on wages and health care are at an impasse. Governor Lynch just signed the minimum wage bill, which will increase the minimum wage for some 26,500 NH residents. As he signed, he mentioned that the cost of rent, childcare, and groceries has increased significantly. Perhaps he can transfer that level of concern over to the issue of negotiating with the state employees.

New Hampshire state law prohibits state employees from going out on strike. Try to imagine what would happen if there were no state employees on the job for a day. If you’re having trouble with that image – try this one. Imagine if the state liquor store employees stayed home for a day. Serious chaos.

‘Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if Labor had not first existed. Labor is superior to capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Abraham Lincoln


UnionSister said...

Finally. Someone gets it! Thank you Susan. As a 15 year state employee, my salary is laughable. I stay because of the benefits. Unfortunately, you can't eat benefits, they don't give off heat or pay the electricity bills.

One deduction I gladly part with is my union dues. Without SEA my salary would be much lower and the health insurance benefits would have been long gone.

Narsbars said...

Yes, at last someone else gets it! I was in the middle of writing an article about how now the door is open for the N.H. state employees and I found your blog. I live in Maine and they tried to get our health care this year, and failed.
I don't know if members see the big picture, but they are after State employee benefits everywhere. The members of the Union negotiations team have taken a beating but we still have our benefits and though good Union management we have actually lowered our co pays.

Narsbars said...

It is my opinion that the N.H. negotiating team must have been crazy or faced some very frightening facts they have not shared. To give up any part of health care for what is not really a 10% raise but more like 4 or 5% over two years after paying for health care. In Maine we fought it off this year, but it will be that much harder next time with N.H. folding up. The floodgates are open and your costs will go up every contract. One of our big issues was trying and failing to get Federal mileage rate for employees. We had members that said "I don't drive, I don't care" You had younger members that don't think they will ever need health care and fell for the false 10% raise. Next time your government will come after your retirement with the same sales pitch.