The contract-less city’s management and professional employee union voted to approve a new five-year pact by a nearly two-to-one margin — following a labor trend of trading increased medical costs and added health care responsibilities in exchange for raises.
The new contract, the union’s first in three years, includes a Health Incentive Program that penalizes members if they don’t make regular trips to the doctor. Other recent public and private sector union deals have included similar provisions as a way get out ahead of rapidly increasing medical costs by fining members who don’t take a proactive approach to catching illnesses before they become particularly harmful and costly to treat.
The city union AFSCME Local 3144 held the contract vote on Thursday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Fire Training Academy at 230 Ella T. Grasso Boulevard. The final tally was 175 votes in favor and 93 against, representing a 70 percent turnout of the union’s 380-person membership.
The contract now goes before the full Board of Alders for approval.
“A majority I believe are for it,” said union president Malinda Figueroa an hour before the polls closed. “But it’s their personal decision on how they want to vote.”
Figueroa, an 18-year veteran of city government who works as an executive assistant in the Engineering Department, became president of the union in October 2017 after she defeated previous union President Cherlyn Poindexter in an election by only 10 votes.
Some members of the union, which includes a diverse array of city staffers ranging from LCI neighborhood specialists to Building Department administrative assistants to Economic Development accountants, said that the contract vote was merely a referendum on Figueroa’s leadership thus far, with supporters and dissenters casting their votes based on their sustained allegiance to Figueroa or to Poindexter.
But conversations with Local 3144 members before, during and after Thursday’s vote revealed that the internal debate over the contract was more substantive than a spat over personal and political loyalties.
Members weighed the benefits of the salary raises against the pain of paying more for medical and retirement. They debated the invasiveness of mandated and enforced preventative healthcare measures against the wisdom of catching illnesses early.
Perhaps most importantly, they balanced the fatigue and frustration of working for three years without a contract against the wariness of voting for one that contains compromises.
“I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world,” said James Apuzzo, a senior accountant in Economic Development who expressed a commonly felt ambivalence about the contract as he left the polling place. “We’ve lost a lot more in previous contracts.”
“I don’t think it’s a very good contract,” said another employee who preferred to remain anonymous. “But I voted for it anyway.”
Salary And Medical Cost Share Increases
The new contract, which is retroactive to July 1, 2015 and extends through June 30, 2020, includes several key changes over Local 3144’s last contract, which expired three years ago.
One of the most controversial is the adoption of the Health Incentive Program (HIP). It requires that members and their dependents each designate a doctor as their primary care physician with Anthem, the city’s insurance provider, and that members and their spouses visit their physicians at least once per year.
The program mandates certain age and gender-specific preventative screenings and physical examinations, such as cervical cancer screenings every three years for females over 21, prostate screenings for males over 50, and baseline colonoscopies for all men and women over 50.
The program requires that covered individuals with chronic health problems comply with a ConditionCare Disease Management program, which involves working with an Anthem-appointed case manager who reviews their treatment and medication.
“Please note that ConditionCare is already part of your plan today,” the new contract reads. “Members with these diseases are already being contacted. All the HIP does is require them to take the phone call and interact with the case manager and not ignore the call as happens today.”
Members who do not comply with the HIP requirements are charged a monthly penalty. Non-compliant individuals are charged $50 per month, non-compliant two-person households are charged $75 per month, and non-compliant families are charged $100 per month.
“No member will ever be fined for following the advice of their doctor,” the contract reads in bold font at the end of the HIP description. “The ConditionCare program and the nurse case manager are only involved to reinforce what the doctor is advising, not replace it.”
While the HIP requirements are new to the Local 3144 contract, this strategy of including mandated preventative healthcare measures as a means of containing medical costs for employers is by no means unique. Last year, the city included identical provisions in its contract with Local 884, the municipal clerical workers’ union.
Last year also saw a Health Expectations Program included in the contracts between Yale University and Locals 34 and 35, the university’s white-collar and blue-collar unions respectively. That contract includes a weekly, not monthly, $25 opt-out fee or non-compliance penalty for those who choose not to participate in the preventative measures.
In addition to the Health Incentive Program, the new Local 3144 contract requires employees to pay a greater share of their current and post-retirement medical costs in exchange for annual salary raises.
The new contract maintains four medical coverage plans for its members, though those plans are now available only to employees who work 30 or more hours per week, whereas they used to be available to those who work 20 or more hours per week. The four coverage plans are: the Lumenos High Deductible/HSA eligible plan (“HDHP/HSA”), the Century Preferred Comp/Mix plan (“Comp/Mix”), the BlueCare POE (“POE”), and the Century Preferred PPO (“PPO”).
For members enrolled in the high deductible plan, the city will cover 65 percent of the deductible starting on July 1, 2018, and 50 percent of the deductible starting July 1, 2019.
Employee cost shares for health and dental premiums from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019 are slated to increase from 15.5 percent to 19.5 percent for Comp/Mix members, from 19.5 percent to 23.5 percent for POE members, and from 21.5 percent to 24 percent for PPO members. HDHP/HSA members will see their premium cost share drop from 11 percent to 9.5 percent for that same time period.
All employees will also be required to contribute a percentage of their pre-tax base pay towards covering post-retirement health benefits. Members will pay 0.50 percent of their salary towards post-retirement medical benefits upon ratification of the contract, 0.75 percent starting July 1, 2018, and 1.25 percent starting July 1, 2019.
In exchange for the medical cost increases, Local 3144 members will receive their first raises in years. They’ll receive a 2 percent increase retroactive to July 1, 2017; a 2.25 percent increase from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019; and a 2.5 percent increase from July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020.
“Grateful” For “What We Have”
On Thursday night, the last voters trickled into the fire academy as Figueroa, her supporters, and the elections committee waited for 6 p.m. to strike.
“In my opinion, in the current economic and financial atmosphere that we’re in right now, not just in New Haven but nationwide, I think this contract is fair,” said Gwendolyn Williams, the business manager for Youth Services and the union representative for District 5. “Do we all wish it was better? Of course. But I look at so many people in New Haven who don’t have any health insurance, and I am grateful that we continue to have what we have.”
She said that she already visits the doctor regularly, and that the new Health Incentive Program will not substantively affect her medical routine.
Loyda Soto, an administrative assistant in Human Resources, was less confident about the contract.
“I have mixed feelings,” she said. “I’m still new here, and I’m just taking things in one day at a time.”
When asked about the mandated requirements of the Health Incentive Plan, she said, “It may not be a violation of HIPAA privacy laws, but it is a violation of human nature.” She said that the program should reward people for visiting the doctor, not punish them for avoiding care.
A Livable City Initiative staffer who asked to remain anonymous said that, in the long run, he thinks that the preventative nature of the Health Incentive Program will help people who may not catch health ailments soon enough. He was more ambivalent about the premium cost share increases.
“No one can afford it,” he said. “But can we afford not to have healthcare? It’s never agreeable. But we’re hoping that the raises will offset the medical.”
Veronica Douglas-Givan, a staffer at the New Haven Adult and Continuing Education Center, expressed skepticism that the Health Incentive Program as currently conceived will protect employee privacy.
“HIPAA gives you the privacy and the protection you need,” she said. “This plan does not.”
She said that Anthem and city representatives did not pay adequate enough attention to union member concerns at a recent informational session at City Hall about the new Health Incentive Program. And she was disappointed that she should be expected to pay more in medical costs when she had not received a raise in her six years on the job.
The polls closed, and the elections committee finished counting and double-checking around half an hour later. When the final tally was announced, Figueroa and her supporters gave a cheer.
When asked about how she planned to appeal to the 93 union members, or 25 percent of the union, who voted against the contract, she said, “We’ll be back at the bargaining table six months before this contract ends. We can start talking now about what needs to change in that next contract.”
“There Are 1,000 Ways To Get A Concession.”
The “yes” vote on the Local 3144 contract represents a victory for new city Labor Relations Director Tom McCarthy, the former president of the Bridgeport City Council who started the New Haven job in July 2017.
At Monday night’s Finance Committee workshop about the mayor’s proposed $547.1 million operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, McCarthy told the alders that the city is largely happy with the 3144 contract.
“For 3144,” he said, “we certainly got things out of the contract that the city wanted out of that contract.”
He singled out employee cost share increases to Other Postemployment Benefits (OPEBs) as particularly important for the city’s effort to contain medical costs.
“They’re paying [more] for their post-employee medical benefits,” he said. “That was important to us, and will continue to build up over time. There were givebacks, but we also gave them raises as well.”
McCarthy told the alders that, in addition to Local 3144, the police union and the city attorneys union are currently working without a contract. The firefighters union contract expires on July 1, 2018.
“We’ve had good conversations, difficult conversations, with the police union,” he said. “But that’s going forward.” He said that he plans to take on the fire union contract negotiations himself, as opposed to relying on outside counsel, and hopes that his involvement will save the city on attorney fees.
East Rock Alder Anna Festa asked McCarthy to explain the city’s strategy for achieving the $3.6 million in union concessions included in the mayor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year.
“We don’t have the big picture,” she said. “We don’t know what these concessions are. We as a group need to know what these concessions are.”
“If you give me a number,” he said, “then it’s my job to assess how I get $3.6 million from all the bargaining units.”
He said that he will break out the proposed concessions by person per salary number, and then will break that out per union. Once he has those numbers, he will approach the unions with specific asks.
“There are a 1,000 ways to get to a concession,” he said, referencing raise deferrals and furlough days or cut uniform allowances. “Each union will have their own personal view of how they get to that concession, or even if they do get to that concession. I have an obligation to get to that number. If I can’t get to that number, I will inform them that we probably will have to do layoffs or something else to get to that number. That’s the negotiation that goes back and forth.”