Firefighters union, county agree on health coverage, raises


The union representing the county's firefighters has agreed to forgo two grievance victories and accept all changes in health coverage. In return, County Executive Robert R. Neall will reinstate a 6 percent pay raise he had rescinded.

All six unions that had challenged aspects of the new managed-care health plan will have a 2 percent raise they received April 21 made retroactive to Dec. 30. That is when the union representing the county's blue-collar workers, who agreed the plan last fall, received its raises.

The six unions claimed that they were being punished for asserting their right to go to a labor impasse with the county because their raises started 3 1/2 months later than the union that had agreed to the plan.

An agreement between the unions and county government was signed Tuesday, said Walter N. Chit- wood III, Mr. Neall's chief administrative officer. The administration has drafted a bill granting the pay raises. It will be introduced at Monday night's County Council meeting.

LeRoy Wilkison, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters, Local 1563, said they reached an agreement with Mr. Neall after "a tough week of negotiations."

The grievances the firefighters won would have resulted in savings of between $100 and $150 per firefighter on their health premiums. The rescinded raise cost them about $2,000 each in pay. "So it's pretty easy to understand how that shakes out," he said.

Mr. Wilkison said he will take the agreement to the union next week for ratification. "I'm confident we can see it ratified," he said.

The dispute began last fall when county officials, in an attempt to curb increasing health care costs, revamped its employee health benefits. Workers were offered three new plans: a health maintenance organization, a network of doctors called "point of service," and a larger and more expensive plan called a "preferred provider network."

The county and the seven unions representing about half of its 4,100 employees negotiated for several months, but the county reached an agreement with only one union. A impasse was declared with the other six unions, and the dispute went before ** NTC the County Council, which ruled in favor of the county in April.

The firefighters union filed two grievances with federal arbitrators and asked for binding arbitration, charging that the county unfairly raised their premiums to create a health care reserve fund and that employees who chose the preferred provider network were paying more than 10 percent of the plan's costs mandated in their contract.

Arbitrators ruled in favor of the union in both grievances. The county appealed the decisions in Circuit Court last week.

After the firefighters won their grievances, Mr. Neall canceled their 6 percent pay raises, saying that the raises were a "quid pro quo" for agreeing to the health plan. He argued that the pay raise money was needed to pay for the concessions.

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