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Public works employees trying to avoid strike

| Saturday, Dec. 27, 2003

PLUM: The contract for Plum's 20 public works employees expires Dec. 31, but don't expect a strike.

"We hope to avoid any kind of strike action," said John Winters, a business agent with Teamsters Local 205 representing the workers.

Although neither side in the talks would divulge pay issues, the sticking point in the negotiations remains the borough's proposal that the workers pay a portion of their health insurance costs.

Union officials declined comment on their position with respect to workers contributing to their health insurance plans.

"We don't dispute the state of the health care industry," Winters said. "It is a problem everywhere."

The borough, last summer, proposed that the workers pay 10 percent of the costs. Neither side would disclose if the proposal remains on the table.

"It always comes back to money, one way or another," said Plum Councilman Jeff Russo, one of the borough's negotiators.

Plum now pays all of the insurance costs for its 60 municipal workers, including public works employees, clerical workers, dispatchers and police. The employees are covered by a Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield plan.

Health and hospitalization insurance costs in the public works department have ballooned by more than 33 percent -- from $107,364 in 2002 to $144,000 this year. Plum officials have budgeted $186,722 for those costs in 2004.

"It (health and hospitalization insurance costs) is a component of costs that is accelerating at a much faster pace than any other (cost)," Plum Manager Ken Gabler said. "Every business is trying to control (the costs)."

Winters said the union has reviewed quotes from other health care providers that the borough has provided.

"We have not come to any formal agreement (concerning health insurance)," Winters said.

Gabler said the plans from other providers contain co-pays and deductibles meaning the employees would be required to take on some financial responsibility.

"That is where it comes down to negotiations," Gabler said.

Public employees increasingly are being called upon to contribute to their health insurance plans.

Beginning with the 2004-05 school year, Plum School District's 287 teachers will be pay $10 a month toward their health insurance.

Ten years ago, Penn Hills began requiring new hires -- excluding police -- to pay 10 percent of the costs.

The next negotiation session is not scheduled until Jan. 12, officials said. There have been a half-dozen negotiating sessions, the last one held earlier this month.

Gabler, meanwhile, said officials are working on a plan to ensure that the streets are plowed during snowstorms in the event that the workers go on strike after Jan. 12. Gabler declined to disclose specifics about the plan.

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