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Strike could end Tuesday night

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Classified employees in Lincoln’s public services department will continue to strike at least through next Tuesday, the date City Council is to vote on a tentative labor agreement. Thirty-six employees in the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39 began their strike on Sept. 14 because the city is asking them to pay a portion of their healthcare. Local 39 and the city reached a tentative agreement on Monday, according to Lincoln’s public information officer Jill Thompson. The agreement was ratified, or approved, by the Local 39 classified unit Tuesday morning. “We can’t divulge the details of the tentative agreement until it is ready to be ratified by council,” Thompson said Tuesday. “You can’t discuss labor negotiations outside of the negotiating room.” When asked by The News Messenger what concessions the classified group had offered the city that day, Local 39 business representative James Britton would not comment. The strike is in response to City Council’s decision Sept. 13 to implement a Last, Best and Final Offer for the Local 39 Classified Group, according to previous News Messenger reports. The portion of the Last, Best and Final Offer that the employees don’t agree with is paying 10-percent out-of-pocket for their health care, according to Britton, and that they would have to pay 100 percent of any health-care premium increases in the third year of their contract. Monthly healthcare rates for 2011 are $524 for just the employee, $1,049 for an employee plus one additional person on the policy, and $1,363 for a family of three or more, according to Britton. The employees tentatively agreed to pay 5 percent out-of-pocket for the above rates, according to Britton, and the Last, Best, and Final Offer would mean employees would pay 10 percent of those rates per month for the first year. Britton said an average public services employee earns $40,000 to $45,000 per year in salary alone but some striking workers told The News Messenger they made from $30,000 to $40,000 a year. A salary report released this summer by the city for the 2010 calendar year shows that public services employees can make between $32,713 and $69,667. The amount the city paid for the retirement and healthcare for each employee is included on the 2010 report but their current salaries and benefits for this year are not available. “They don’t currently have a contract,” Thompson said. During the strike, the city has contracted its solid waste services, also known as garbage pick-up, with Atlas Disposal, according to public services director Mark Miller. Contracted employees cost the city $48 an hour, according to Miller. “It’s $48 an hour on an emergency basis,” Miller said. “That rate is essentially an emergency on-call rate. It’s more than that if we had a long-term contract.” Public-services supervisors, along with Atlas Disposal, continue to do garbage pick-up, according to Thompson. “The city of Lincoln will not be collecting green waste while Local 39 classified employees remain on strike,” Thompson said. “The city continues to keep the collection of garbage its top priority due to the public-health issues associated with uncollected garbage.” Thompson said residents will receive a credit in their next utility bill for green waste that was not picked up during the strike. Last fiscal year, solid waste employees made between $26 and $30 an hour in both salary and benefits to do garbage pick-up, which is between $37,068 and $45,734 per year, according to a salary report for 2010 provided by Thompson. Miller said there are normally five to six solid waste employees working on an average day and 20,000 homes and businesses throughout the city are serviced. “It’s a lot of trash to pick up, and of course, we are concerned to do it as quickly as we can because it does present a health issue,” Miller said. Miller said nine public services supervisors “have stepped out to do the rank and file work.” Some on strike called the city asking for concessions a political move. “That’s the pressure they (city leaders) are getting from the public, that public salaries are too high,” said Tim Collins, a steward for Lincoln’s classified bargaining unit and solid waste employee, on Friday. “Their (residents) major complaint is with upper management and not the lower-level employees.” Collins added that “people making $40,000 are not the problem.” “We’d be more than happy to make more concessions to our medical if they would make it up in their salaries,” Collins said. Most of the city’s classified employees are paid for out of the city’s enterprise fund, which Collins said “is in the black.” Collins pointed out that four classified employees are paid out of the city’s General Fund. The General Fund funds police, fire, library and recreation services. “The biggest issue is that we’re not a draw on the problem,” Collins said. “The only reason they can’t afford it is because they haven’t done utility rate increases in years and would have to raise rates.” Jesse Corral, a solid waste employee, also said the concessions being asked of the group were “political.” “The way I see it, there’s nothing in it for the General Fund,” Corral said. “Why are they asking us to give up so much when it’s not benefitting the city?” Corral said the classified group is willing to pay their share of CalPERS, State Disability Insurance and are “willing to give up five percent of our medical without the cap.” The News Messenger asked Miller why the city is asking the classified group to make concessions since they receive their pay out of the city’s enterprise fund. “This is all taxpayer money, whether it’s General Fund or enterprise fund,” Miller said. “We cannot raise rates in this economic climate.” The concessions allow the city to “go longer without raising rates.” “Local 39 has had significant raises over the last few years when many ratepayers not only didn’t get raises but quite a few lost their jobs,” Miller said. “The economic reality is that you have to control costs overall.” Although Collins said four of the striking employees are paid out of the General Fund, City Manager Jim Estep said eight of the classified unit employees are paid all or partially out of the General Fund. “In addition to that, revenue for the enterprise funds is based on specific rates and fees that our citizens must pay each month,” Estep said. “Given the current economic climate, our citizens cannot afford increasing water, sewer and solid waste collection fees to pay for employees increased wages and benefits.” Estep was asked for a response to the striker’s claims that the concessions they are being asked to take are a political move on the city’s part. “This is purely a fiscally responsible action and a part of normal labor negotiations. The city is in fact trying to be fiscally responsible by saving taxpayer’s and rate payer’s money by keeping personnel costs at reasonable levels,” Estep said. “I’m sure the citizens would want us to be as fiscally conservative as possible, given the current economic conditions both the city and our citizens are facing.” The News Messenger asked Mayor Paul Joiner for a response to the striker’s claims that their concessions would be a political move on the city’s part. “It’s simply not accurate to depict the city’s need to share the increasing expense of employee healthcare coverage with the beneficiaries as political,” Joiner said. “The decision is purely economic. Covering 100 percent of employee healthcare cost is unsustainable.”