Sheriff's Department employees fight back against health insurance increase

Sheriff's Department employees fight back against health insurance increase

Some employees at the Grand Traverse County Sheriff's Department are fighting back, following an earlier decision by the county to up employee health insurance contributions.

County employees have previously chipped in 6% for their health insurance contributions, but as of January 1, 2017, that will rise to 20%.

County commissioners approved the change back in April.

It's a change County Administrator Tom Menzel didn't want to make so suddenly.

"I would have preferred to go six, 10, 15, 20, over three years," said Menzel. "And it should have been done years ago but it never was."

Raising the county employee health insurance contributions is something Menzel says is necessary to try and correct the county's $52 million pension deficit.

"I've got to find ways to save money, so I'm forced to do it quickly," Menzel said.

The change will save the county more than $600 thousand a year.

Five grievances have been filed from several departments at the sheriff's office, alleging the county has breached their contract.

"At the same time we also filed suit with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission," said Wayne Beerbower, Business Agent for the Police Officers Association of Michigan. "We essentially are arguing an unfair labor practice."

The contract between the county and the employees at the sheriff's office covers January 2015-December 2017, according to Beerbower.

"In a sense they can't unilaterally come in and just start changing those benefits for us," Beerbower said.

He says they understand the county is under a lot of pressure right now, but the employees he represents have worries too.

"And I know that there would be no problem with us at least talking about it. I can't agree that necessarily right now we'd move on it but we'd certainly discuss it with them," said Beerbower.

Menzel too says he recognizes the strain the change creates, but says it's not totally out of the norm.

"City of Traverse City has been 20% for years," Menzel said.

Ryan Liabenow, a Practice Leader for Health and Welfare for the Larkin Group says the county's financial situation isn't all that uncommon right now.

"I think across the state of Michigan everyone's kind of feeling that pain," Liabenow says.

According to data from PEW Charitable Trusts, the average public employee contribution in Michigan is 18%, and 24% for private employees.

Nationally public employees contribute an average of 16%, while private put in about 28%.

Liabenow says the 6% employees pay here is relatively low, but it's not so easy to compare.

"We have to take into consideration the actual value of a benefit or the richness of a benefit for a particular employer," Liabenow said. "What type of benefit they're really getting and then really compare that to the percentage of employee contribution to really make a balanced assessment.

While both the county and union reps say they're confident they can win their arguments, Menzel says he'll make another change if he can.

"We have it planned for January 1, 2017. If there's any way I can relieve some of that, I will do that," Menzel said.

Menzel says he doesn't feel the grievances are valid because he says the county is following state statute. If they lose their case, he says they will file an appeal.

Just last week, a labor law judge issued a show cause order to the county, saying the county had a limited amount of time to explain why the labor law judge should't rule in the employees' favor, according to Beerbower.

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