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Becker County, union fail to come to terms, strike date could be set next week

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Becker County Courthouse (Tribune file photo)
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DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- Negotiations between Becker County and union representatives failed, meaning a county workers strike could still be coming.

A mediated session between a Becker County negotiation team and Teamster Local 320 failed to break the logjam Wednesday, March 4, over a two-year contract for about 160 county human services and courthouse employees represented by the union.

Union members earlier voted to go on strike if a settlement is not reached. The strike date has not yet been announced.

“The county is extremely disappointed in this outcome,” Becker County Administrator Michael Brethorst said in a Monday news release. “Becker County has come to the table on multiple occasions and offered an above average increase, based on comparable counties.” But the union negotiations team outright rejected all county offers for its membership, he said.

For its part, the union was disappointed that the county “refused to negotiate and the day ended prematurely,” said Brian Aldes, Teamsters Local 320 secretary treasurer. “We were prepared to stay at the table as long as it took to get a deal done,” he said in a phone interview. “Then the county started taking pieces off the table …”.

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The two sides are not that far apart on wages: For this year, the county’s final offer was a 2.5% general wage increase (up from an initial 2% offer and then a 2.25% counteroffer), while the union’s final offer was a 3% general wage increase, the same as its counteroffer. It’s initial request was for a 4% increase.

For 2021, the county’s final offer was a 2.5% general wage increase, up from an initial 2% offer and then a 2.5% counteroffer. (The county’s final offer rises to 2.75% if the union agrees to language changes regarding employee leave that seven other union contracts already contain).

Financial impact of a strike

The county’s proposal of a 2.5% general increase will cost the taxpayers approximately $400,000. Every quarter-percent increase in wage will cost about $40,000, the county said in its news release. The difference between what the county is offering in hourly wage and what the union is requesting is 12 cents an hour, or 96 cents a day, which amounts to about $257 a year, on average.

The average Teamster member would lose approximately $262 per day in wages and benefits to be on strike. If employees go on strike for one day, it will take them over one year to recover the loss in wages and benefits for that one day. If employees are on strike for more than a couple of days, they will lose more in wages and benefits than they would regain in years, the county said in its news release.

Insurance contribution

The Teamsters Union has proposed a $2,400 annual increase in contribution toward health Insurance. Currently eligible employees receive $15,581 annually in insurance benefits. This is calculated to $7.46 per hour or about $60 per day.

The Teamster request represents a 15% increase, the county said in its news release. The Teamsters are also requesting a health insurance package for part-time employees. Becker County offers health insurance contributions to employees who work 30 hours per week or more. It has never made contributions to employees working less than 30 hours.

The Affordable Care Act has set 30 hours per week as the point where employers are to provide insurance. Becker County believes that this is appropriate and that there is no compelling reason to expand coverage beyond the level set by Congress, nor can the county afford to do so. In addition, Becker County’s part-time employees do receive various benefits, such as vacation, sick leave, holidays and a pension plan contribution of 7.5% of their wage.

Aldes, the Teamsters spokesman, said health insurance was not a big sticking point. “They know the union is quite prepared to leave current insurance as-is as part of the contract settlement,” he said.

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What happens next

The union negotiations committee will now recommend to membership “that we vote to strike,” Aldes said. The entire membership will vote on Tuesday, March 17, on whether to proceed with a strike, and if the vote carries, a strike date will be set, he added.

For its part, Becker County will now wait to receive an official strike notice from the union. Pending that, additional meetings will occur between Becker County and the unions affected, Brethorst said in the news release.

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