State workers must at least discuss higher health-care costs

State workers must accept changes to their benefits to avoid deep layoffs.

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The rising cost of health care -- and health-care insurance -- has hit us all. Although, some have been hit much harder than others.

Most of those working in the private sector have seen their share of the premiums rise while their coverage has decreased. Employers, as a way to keep their heads above the red ink, have been asking (or demanding) their employees pay a larger share of health-care premiums.

But most government employees have, to this point, not seen a dramatic change in what they have to pitch in for benefits.

That might change in Washington state where state government is facing yet another budget crisis.

Tacoma News Tribune writer Jordan Schrader reported this week state government and its employee unions started contract talks over health insurance, and a union official says health benefits are already a sticking point. Gov. Chris Gregoire's office wants employees to pay a larger share of their health-care costs.

Schrader's report, posted in the TNT's political blog, drew pages and pages of comments. And if those comments are any indication the public isn't particularly sympathetic to state workers on the health-care issue.

The consensus is that it's about time state workers had to make the same sacrifices to keep their jobs as those in the private sector.

Workers now pay 12 percent of insurance premiums, and unions offered a proposal that would keep that ratio intact, a union spokesman told Schrader. But the state position is employees must pay a larger share of premiums -- 25 percent -- if they want to avoid higher costs at the doctor's office, such as deductibles and co-pays, the union source said.

The Washington Federation of State Employees has taken the position that increasing employees' share from 12 to 25 percent is a nonstarter.

This union and other state-worker unions need to be more flexible for their own good and the good of the people of the state. Layoffs hurt families, the overall economy and reduce the state's ability to provide services.

In the past, state employees and unions have argued that terrific benefits are justified because private sector workers are generally paid more than state workers. That, however, is not universally true anymore. The gap in pay has closed and, in some cases, vanished.

The Great Recession, which isn't over yet, has changed things for all employees and all employers.

Now, we don't necessarily believe the amount state workers should pay for their health-care insurance should go to the 25 percent figure. State employees have made many sacrifices, including losing 10 days of pay through the furlough program. There are many factors that must be considered. The final number might still be 12 percent or somewhere between 12 and 25 percent.

But the new reality is everything -- including benefits -- has to be on the table as compensation is discussed for the next two-year state budget cycle.

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