Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011 | 2 a.m.
After three months of negotiations, Clark County is far from agreeing to a contract with its largest employee union.
County officials have already filed a labor complaint against the 5,000-strong Service Employees International Union, accusing the union of “dragging its feet.”
Now, County Manager Don Burnette has decided not to wait for a deal with SEIU before setting wages and benefits for the county’s nonunion employees. Traditionally the county’s 1,100 nonunion employees — who include nonmanagers and midlevel professionals ineligible to join the union — receive whatever wage and benefits the service employees get during bargaining.
However, Burnette says the county’s fiscal situation is so dire that he can’t wait and will ask commissioners to freeze merit and longevity pay for nonunion workers, saving about $1.6 million this fiscal year.
Were the SEIU to agree to the same deal, the county could still save about $6 million before the end of the fiscal year, June 30. Six other public employee unions have already agreed this fiscal year to have merit pay frozen. Some have also frozen longevity pay. And a contract with county prosecutors, expected to be approved Tuesday, includes a 3 percent wage cut.
According to its website, the SEIU is asking for a 3 percent pay increase this year, and that wage increases next year be tied to the consumer price index.
“By saving $1.6 million now, we are in a much better position to avoid layoffs with our nonunion workforce this fiscal year,” Burnette said. “With the extraordinarily slow pace of bargaining chosen by the union, there is no end in sight to these negotiations. We can no longer afford to wait.”
The next negotiating session is at 9:30 a.m. today. Although closed to the public, the union put out fliers and several union members, acting as observers, are expected to attend.
Commissioner Steve Sisolak said he supports Burnette’s idea.
“We’re still $42 million in the hole,” Sisolak said. “We have other unions coming to the table and making concessions and we appreciate that. We wish the SEIU would do the same, because we have a lot more to do to fill that gap.”
A sticking point is that the union, and even some county commissioners, don’t believe the county is hurting as badly as Burnette says.
Commissioner Tom Collins cursed when told of the county’s proposal to freeze nonunion workers’ pay. As chairman of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Collins said he has seen gaming revenue increase month after month over the past year. He believes there’s “more money” than county administrators want anyone to know about.
(Burnette and staff serve at the pleasure of Collins and other commissioners.)
Further, Collins argued that the county should stop hitting employees in their pocketbooks and look for savings from places other than wages. He suggested, as an example, decreasing paid sick days from 12 a year to eight or eliminating one paid holiday a year. “There are other ways to do this rather than just going after someone’s pay.”
When people are paid less, they spend less, Collins added. “That hurts the economy even more.”
In June, Collins voted in favor of a contract that froze merit pay for Fire Department battalion chiefs.
The service employees union is prepared to prove the county has more money that it claims to have, said Nick Di Archangel, SEIU spokesman.
“We think the money’s there, we don’t think there needs to be layoffs and we don’t think there needs to be cuts,” he said. “Times are a little bit better now. We think the money’s there for both the benefits and the fair compensation, and we’re prepared to show that.”
As for the county’s assertion that the union is dragging its feet, Di Archangel said all 40 articles of the contract are being reviewed and it takes time to keep members abreast of changes.
“We have to have all the members educated and buying in on what’s going on with each one of these articles,” he said. “We consider proposals, we talk to members who meet on their own time.”
If the process were rushed, Di Archangel added, “it would not be a true representation of whether the membership agrees with it. We take every precaution so that when they have to vote, they have all the information.”
Burnette isn’t satisfied with that answer, recollecting that before their last major negotiation in 2006, the SEIU met with the county once every 10 days instead of the current once every month. If anything, he added, the poor economy should add more urgency to these negotiations.
“Now that the economy has gone through all these changes, I find it ironic that they are only able to meet once a month,” he added.