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Contract talks between N.H. state government, largest union remain deadlocked despite mediation

Contract negotiations between the state government and its largest union remain deadlocked, and the State Employees’ Association announced yesterday that four days of mediation have failed to produce a deal.

The sticking point is health care, the union said, with state officials proposing a first-ever health insurance deductible for state workers. With mediation at an end, negotiators from the state and the SEA will next present their arguments to a neutral third party, which will gather information and make recommendations, a nonbinding process known as “fact-finding.”

The state in June announced it had reached tentative two-year contracts with the SEA and three other unions that represent state workers. But the SEA’s Collective Bargaining Senate rejected the deal on a 56-48 vote, blocking ratification by members and sending negotiators back to the table.

In July, the union declared an impasse in the talks, and four days of subsequent mediation have failed to produce an agreement, said Diana Lacey, the SEA’s president.

“The state did ask for more days of mediation, but after more than seven months of waiting for proof or any of the calculations that the state used to put the health care dollars into the budget, the SEA team is not agreeable to more days of mediation,” Lacey told reporters yesterday. “Fact-finding will require the state to provide evidence to support their position.”

Under the fact-finding process, the state and the SEA will present their cases to a neutral third party, who will then make recommendations for resolving the dispute. If negotiators from either side reject the fact-finder’s report, it will go to an up-or-down vote – on the SEA’s side, by the union’s membership, and on the state’s side, by the Executive Council and Gov. Maggie Hassan.

“After eight months of negotiations, I regret that the parties have not been able to finalize an agreement and will now be entering into the fact-finding stage. However, I continue to believe that a fair agreement can be reached within the bounds of the current budget,” Hassan, a Democrat, said yesterday in a statement.

Under the June deal, state workers would for the first time have had a deductible for health insurance: $500 for individuals and $750 for families at first, then increasing to $1,000 for families in 2015.

State employees would also have received their first across-the-board raises since January 2009: 1.5 percent this year, 2.25 percent in July 2014 and 2.25 percent on Jan. 1, 2015.

Lacey said the SEA and the state have agreed on the raises and other elements of the contract, but they have not worked out the details on the health care side. She said the union wants more information about how the state arrived at its estimates for cost savings related to health insurance.

“Employees really actually need the raise to pay their bills. They need a raise that they can use that way, and not have to use for more health care costs. . . . The state has not provided us any documentation, any spreadsheets, calculations, anything to support their claim that they have offered the best deal that they can offer to the employees when it comes to health care,” Lacey said.

The two-year state budget that took effect July 1 included money for the raises, but also counted on savings associated with tentative agreements’ health insurance plans.

The SEA is by far the largest of the four unions that represent state workers, and the employees it represents have been working without a contract since the end of June.

Members of the New England Police Benevolent Association and the Teamsters ratified their new contracts with the state. The status of negotiations with the fourth union, the New Hampshire Troopers Association, wasn’t clear yesterday; union leaders couldn’t be reached for comment.

As for the SEA, Lacey said it’s likely the fact-finding process will begin next month, and she said she hoped the fact-finder’s recommendations will be issued in late October or early November. That report will go to the state and SEA negotiators before it becomes public.

“Our goals remain the same, and we can provide a critical cost-of-living increase to state employees while reducing health care costs and strengthening our state’s financial outlook,” Hassan said. “As we move forward, I will work to ensure that the fact-finding process is respectful, transparent and constructive for both our hard-working state employees and New Hampshire taxpayers, so that we may reach an agreement that is fair to all parties.”

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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