News

Utility union fighting cuts

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

The operating engineers who run Lakehaven Utility District's wastewater treatment plants will back down on several cuts the district has proposed in their contract, pushing the workers to the brink of picketing.

Bruce Heniken, business representative for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 286, which represents the Lakehaven workers, said the union wanted two things going into negotiations this year: A 10 percent increase in the amount Lakehaven pays for health premiums and $5 a year for safety shoes.

What they got, he said, was a laundry list of takeaways: Reductions in sick leave, overtime pay, step pay increases and cost-of-living increases, and the creation of a paid time-off plan that combines vacation, sick time and some paid holidays, resulting in the loss of three paid holidays during the year.

"Boy, I could just go on and on," Heniken said. "We are getting ready to picket."

But Lakehaven Commissioner Bev Tweddle said members of the union appear to have an extraordinarily high rate of sick leave usage.

Tweddle said Lakehaven general manager Don Perry :suggested that instead of having vacation and sick leave, we combine the two and just have paid time off."

The district says it hasn't been able to negotiate the proposed changes with union leadership because meetings keep getting canceled.

"There seems to be a refusal to want to meet, and I'm not sure why. It's baffling to me when we have meetings scheduled," Tweddle said. "We haven't talked about how (paid time off) would be implemented because (union negotiators) haven't been around enough."

Heniken said the proposed change in overtime pay would cause overtime to apply only to paid hours worked, not simply paid hours. That would affect people on vacation who get called into work, for example. He said the district is trying to default to the Fair Labor and Standards Act instead of keeping the negotiated contract represented employees have been working under.

"The law was designed for people who don't even have contracts," he said. "They propose to follow the law. Gee, thanks."

Currently, step pay increases are set at 2.5 percent on the employee's anniversary date. Under Lakehaven's proposed contract, Heniken said, that would decrease to 1.25 percent. Cost-of-living allowances have a similar reduction, from a range of 2.25-5 percent to 1-4 percent.

Heniken said the union went into contract negotiations with eight requests. In addition to the health premiums and safety shoes, they wanted some language clarifications and some tweaking of time-off allowances. Heniken said they didn't get far.

For on-call pay, the union was "trying to get language to clear up when a person was on call and when they weren't on call," Heniken said. "We tried to fix it. Their response was they liked the old language. It wasn't really an issue, but now it's bothering us."

For Family Medical Leave Act time off, the union wanted language to reflect that time off under the act would be incurred "when the employee requested it rather than when the employer implemented it," Heniken said. Currently, an employer can require an employee use all of his or her sick leave and vacation leave before the act kicks in.

He said the district proposed deleting the article allowing five days of bereavement leave –– instead, employees would use time off from the paid time off pot –– and the wants to delete language for military service leave and go by state and federal law, instead.

Seeing the contract proposals was discouraging for the workers, who plan to begin picketing to provide ratepayers and the public with information about the process, Heniken said.

"We really only went in there requesting a couple things," he said. "I think the director's one of those bullies who picks the wings off flies. I was like, 'Do you hate us? Why are you doing this to us?'"

Tweddle said negotiations have "been a mess. You can't (union representatives) to come to meetings enough to have a serious discussion. This is the first time I've ever run across a situation where you can't get a meeting scheduled to talk about your differences. Everyone on our team would like to get this settled. We've been at this five or six months now. That's an awful long time to not get anything done."

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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