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County, union agree on pact

Rich Cholodofsky
| Monday, May 14, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

Negotiators for Westmoreland County and Service Employees International Union Local 585 struck a tentative agreement on a new four-year labor pact Friday morning after nearly 22 hours at the bargaining table.

While neither county officials nor union representatives would talk about the terms of the deal, both parties said they were pleased with the outcome of the negotiations.

"We got a good settlement," said SEIU spokesman Tom Hoffman.

Hoffman said the union's negotiating team will unanimously recommend that the rank-and-file members ratify the tentative agreement.

Sources close to the negotiations said the package would give most SEIU members raises of $2.20 an hour over the life of the agreement. The proposal includes no wage freezes and removes a provision to pay courthouse workers for an additional 30 minutes each day.

Union workers also are expected to receive free health insurance benefits in which doctor co-payments will stay at their current levels until the fourth year of the contract.

Union negotiators initially balked at any change in insurance that would replace Select Blue, the free package members currently receive, with another plan.

The tentative deal calls for union members to receive Community Blue health insurance that carries a more limited physician network.

"I'm pleased with the outcome. I think both sides made a lot of tough decisions where we could get an agreement everybody could live with," said Commissioner Tom Ceraso, a member of the county's negotiating team.

"Financially, it held the line, so there is not a large bite to the taxpayers," Ceraso said.

Commissioner Tom Balya said there would be no official public disclosure about the terms of the deal until next week at the earliest so as not to jeopardize the union's ratification vote that likely will be conducted in early April.

"Both sides got things they wanted and both sides gave a few things they wanted," Balya said.

Commissioner P. Scott Conner declined to discuss the agreement.

SEIU leaders are expected to meet with union members in small groups to brief them on the agreement.

SEIU spokesman Tom Hoffman said yesterday that those meetings are expected to be held late next week, and a ratification vote could come as early as April 8 or 9.

Commissioners are then formally expected to sign off on the deal at their next public meeting on April 18.

Last week, SEIU members overwhelmingly voted to authorize their leadership to call a strike should negotiations bog down. No strike date was ever set.

The SEIU represents more than 1,200 members who work at Westmoreland Manor, the county nursing home; 911 dispatchers; courthouse employees; parks and road crews, and workers in numerous other departments.

In February, commissioners proposed what they said was their best offer, which included raises of $2 an hour over four years and a free health care package that included higher co-payments and a limited physician network.

Union leaders rejected that offer without bringing it to members for a vote.

On the heels of the strike authorization vote, negotiations resumed this week at the urging of a state mediator. Both sides returned to the bargaining table Tuesday night for three hours, but talks recessed without a settlement.

Those talks reconvened at 9 a.m. Thursday, and the marathon session finally produced a tentative agreement after 6:30 a.m. yesterday.

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