It wasn’t a standing room only crowd, but more than 100 state employees and retirees gave up a few hours of their sunny Saturday afternoon to get more information about the $1.6 billion union concession package they will be asked to vote on in the next few weeks.
The five-year agreement makes various changes to their health care and pension benefits. It offers job security for four years, freezes their wages for the first two years and increases their salary by 3 percent in the final three years of the agreement.
Cindy Lewis, of Southbury who works for the University of Connecticut Medical Center as a secretary at the Bridgeport Correctional Center, said she’s glad she came to get the information from union leadership.
Up until Saturday Lewis said because of the secrecy of the negotiations all she had to go on was bits and pieces of information, many of which turned out to be inaccurate.
“Instead of finding it out for themselves thousands of workers were led to believe things that weren’t true and are going to vote on misinformation,” Lewis said. “If 20 percent don’t approve the package it could throw us into a tailspin.”
Eighty percent of the voting members and 14 of the 15 unions have to vote in favor of the package in order to ratify the agreement. If the agreement isn’t ratified Gov. Dannel P. Malloy warned last week that there will be more than 4,700 layoffs and programmatic cuts, which will eliminate even more state employees some with more than 10 years of service to the state.
Lewis said union leadership spent about 20 percent of their time Saturday explaining the agreement and left the rest of the time for questions from members. She said they dispelled a lot of the myths, including rumors that SustiNet is part of the health care package.
“It has nothing to do with it,” Lewis said as she left the meeting.
The lack of information at the beginning of the process created a void which a few people filled with misinformation, Lewis said. And she admitted that misinformation was tempting to believe.
Stephen Anderson, a member of CSEA Local 2001 who works in the Department of Environmental Protection’s air pollution control division, said he doesn’t like having to give up anything, but on the other hand he doesn’t want to see any of his colleagues laid off. He said the misinformation about things like the health care package seems to be coming from a vocal minority who don’t fully understand the package.
He said he would be embarrassed if he had to go home and tell his neighbors he voted against this package which guarantees his job for the next four years.
Steve Curran, a correction officer at Garner Correctional Institute, said more people seem to be coming to meetings like this to get information, but Saturday’s at the state Armory was the largest statewide meeting to date.
“We’re doing our best to gather information for our members,” Curran said.
Asked what concerns he’s been hearing and Curran said one word “change.”
The Correction Officers union, which voted against the package in 2009, has been one of the more vocal bargaining groups when it comes to the changes in the package.
Curran wouldn’t say how he was going to vote, but he said he understands there’s concerns about the Value-Based Health Care plan which saves money by making sure state employees attend their annual physicals and routine age-appropriate exams such as colonoscopies. If they fail to attend the annual appointments they will be charged more in monthly premiums, and for the first time will be subjected to a $350 deductible.
“I think the idea of going to the doctor once a year is something we need to warm up to,” Curran said.
Matt O’Connor, spokesman for the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition and CSEA/SEIU Local 2001, said the problem is going to be the folks sitting on the fence, not with the vocal minority or those attending these informational meetings.
But he said he doesn’t believe the myths and misinformation are sticking.
Meanwhile, Larry Dorman, another SEBAC spokesman, said union leadership has to make sure it does everything it can to education its membership and answer their questions.
Republican lawmakers have criticized the package because they don’t believe the estimated savings in the $1.6 billion package are achievable.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney have said the assumptions made by the savings in the concession package are questionable.
“They’re sort being pulled out of thin air,” Cafero said.
As an example, Cafero highlighted projected savings from employee suggestions, which are estimated to save the state $90 million in the first two years of the agreement. Cafero questioned the state’s ability to find $180 million in savings from an “employee suggestion box,” over the next two years.
He also said $250 million from the health care initiatives, of which union leadership said they are most proud, is highly suspect. “It’s really on shaky ground,” Cafero said.
“Unfortunately, the more we see the details, the less there is to like,“ said McKinney. “A four-year, no-layoff pledge, which no one in the private sector has, leaves us four years from now, right where we started. Unemployment in the private sector is 9.1 percent. Unemployment in government is zero percent.”