Washington’s largest state employee union has filed a labor-contract grievance against the state, asking for a $17.7 million refund from a health-benefits account. The account had a surplus from which the Legislature removed about $118 million to help balance the budget this year.
Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget director, Marty Brown, did not put much credence in the claim. “Obviously our position is the Legislature has that authority, but we’ll wait for the process,’’ Brown said.
But Greg Devereux, executive director for the Washington Federation of State Employees, said the surplus was from an account that holds comingled funds – some paid in by workers, who share 15 percent of the cost of health insurance.
The rest was by taxpayers, and a rebate could mean $200 per unionized worker, he said.
“We obviously don’t believe the Legislature can just sweep the $118 million away. We believe 15 percent of it is ours, so $17.7 million-$18 million of it belongs to state employees. If they don’t want to settle the grievance, we’ll see what an arbitrator decides,’’ Devereux said. “We’ll have a third party sort it out for us.’’
The grievance echoes one of six years ago that arose – like this one – at the same time that the governor’s labor negotiators were in talks with more than two dozen unions over health care benefits.
In 2006, the dispute was settled in the new contracts for the following two years, and unionized workers were given one-time rebates of $756.
Both parties say the circumstances were a bit different in 2006 and contracts were worded a bit differently.
Brown said he sees the ongoing talks this time as completely separate from the grievance. But Devereux said they could become linked as before.
Whatever happens on the grievance, Gregoire’s labor relations team is in talks with more than two dozen unions over health benefits for the 2013-15 cycle. Talks with individual unions over wages are expected to follow later in the summer.