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Don't rush vote on Suffolk County labor contracts

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone acknowledges special guests

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone acknowledges special guests in the audience as he delivers his State of the County address on the Brentwood campus of Suffolk Community College on April 17, 2019. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Last Wednesday, Suffolk County announced it had reached new labor agreements to run through 2025 with the Police Benevolent Association and the Association of Municipal Employees, and new health care contracts with all 10 county unions.

On Tuesday, the county legislature is scheduled to consider and potentially vote to ratify those agreements, and that’s far too fast to move on such complicated and expensive deals.

County Executive Steve Bellone quickly trumpeted the money-saving aspects of the agreements, and there are clearly some foundational changes that would help control costs.

On the health care side, the county’s 10,000 union employees would pay about 2 percent of their wages for insurance, kicking in $1,500 to $3,750 a year. They also would face higher deductibles for out-of-network doctors, and copays for services like emergency room visits.

Employee health care, an extraordinarily complex matter in collective bargaining, costs the county about $450 million a year. That’s an increase of more than 50 percent in the six years since Bellone last announced a health care deal. Costs were cut in some areas, but for the most part the unions, whose expertise in constructing these agreements is unparalleled, got the better of that deal. Promised savings on prescription drugs and other givebacks were very slow to materialize. In this deal, the employee contribution, which will go up one-tenth of 1 percent of salary per year, almost certainly will shrink as a percentage of the total bill each year of the deal.

The county’s proposed labor deal with the PBA has some significant givebacks, and two are structurally crucial: Newly hired employees would work an additional 14.5 days in their first year and an additional 17 days in their second year, and new hires would get only 13 sick days a year to use or bank, half the current 26-day-a-year allotment.

Cutting sick days in half is huge, but keeping them cut in half could be hard. Just consider the biggest win for the PBA in this contract, and how it erases a big win for the county from the last one: The 2012 deal created a two-tier pay scale that capped new officers’ base salary at $111,506 after 12 years, compared with $139,234 after 5 years for officers already on the force. County officials touted it as a huge structural gain. But this new deal puts everyone back on track for the same top pay, which would be $155,000 a year. The unions are quick to trade away the good life for future workers, but once those employees are on the job, the push to get them on par with veteran co-workers is strong.

In New York, the Triborough Amendment in state labor law requires that work conditions of unionized public employees remain in place after their contracts expire. Add mandatory arbitration, and unions can’t be made to give up much. But county legislators have a right and a responsibility to understand every nook and cranny of these deals before they ratify them, and that’s not a process which can be rushed.

The proposed contracts have not been through the legislature’s committee hearings. There’s no rush. These deals should be closely reviewed before votes are cast.  The editorial board