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County seeks retroactive pay cuts from workers; union calls move ‘excessive’

County employees are being asked to give back a portion of their raises under a proposal that calls for retroactive pay cuts.

Officials at the Service Employees International Union, the county’s largest union, are so irked they are circulating fliers and asking their 9,500 county members to wear stickers to protest the proposed contract concessions, defying an agreed-upon rule not to air specific topics discussed in bargaining.

County negotiators are asking for 4 percent pay cuts and the elimination of merit raises retroactive to July 1, which would mean workers would pay back some of the wages and raises they already have received.

The money would come out of future paychecks, county officials said.

That would be an unusual measure, especially for union labor. In most cases, pay raises, not reductions, are retroactive.

County leaders also want workers to take six days of unpaid furloughs a year and pay higher health care premiums. And they want to restrict overtime and “shift differential pay,” the extra money that employees get when working outside their normally scheduled shift.

Union leaders contend that employees did enough when they took a reduced cost-of-living raise last year, saving the county more than $10 million.

Employees also must work harder to make up for the 1,200 jobs left vacant, union officials argue.

“To have all these economic rollbacks, it seems really excessive,” said Nick DiArchangel, spokesman for SEIU Local 1107.

The economy has worsened, county officials say, and labor costs must be trimmed further to avoid layoffs.

“We’re thankful for the contribution they made last year, but the economy hasn’t improved, and we believe that financial concessions are appropriate,” county spokesman Erik Pappa said.

Pappa said county officials won’t make detailed rebuttals to the union’s complaints because they are trying to honor the nonpublicity rule.

“We don’t want to be accused of bad faith bargaining,” Pappa said.

A 2008 Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce study found that Nevada’s state and local government employees were among the best paid in the nation. The study said that Nevada’s governments are exceptionally lean, however, with relatively fewer workers than other state and local governments.

County employees’ earnings vary depending on the job. According to an employee compensation report the county released in August, some average annual wages last year included: office assistant, $35,000; maintenance worker II, $46,000; electrician, $59,000; and accountant, $61,000.

DiArchangel said the union wants to convey the message that taking money from workers’ pockets will take money from the local economy. So, when members are out shopping, they wear stickers that have “- 4 %” covered by a strike symbol, he said.

He said it is highly unusual for workers to pay back wages to a public employer. Generally, pay raises are retroactive, and pay cuts start after the bargaining ends, he said.

One labor expert said retroactive pay cuts are uncommon but not unheard of. This year, some assistant professors in the state’s higher education system had to repay wages they received after salaries were reduced, said Chris Stream, a professor who teaches public policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“Certainly for unions it would be uncommon,” Stream said. “But we’re in uncommon times.”

Tensions between the county and the union increased recently after a months-long lull.

The two sides began bargaining on July 14 about employees’ pay. The full contract does not come up for renewal until July 2011.

Last year, the union agreed to reduce cost-of-living raises to 1 percent from 3 percent and cap merit raises at 4 percent. In return, the contract was extended a year, and the two sides agreed to discuss some parts of the contract this year.

The county laid off more than 250 employees in the past year. County officials have said unions must choose between reduced compensation and more layoffs.

DiArchangel said the choice isn’t so straightforward. The county has never guaranteed it won’t lay off workers if the union makes concessions, he said.

County Commissioner Steve Sisolak said pay cuts and raises both should be retroactive to cover the entire year of the contract. Otherwise, they become meaningless if bargaining drags on too long, he said.

“I know it doesn’t sit well,” Sisolak said, referring to workers repaying the county. “It’s unfortunately a necessary evil. I would rather have concessions and (wage) reductions than layoffs.”

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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