Sullivan County united

Posted 8/3/22

MONTICELLO, NY — Sullivan County has been in negotiations with its primary union, the main unit of Teamsters Local 445, for over two years.

The lack of security and the lack of annual raises …

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Sullivan County united


MONTICELLO, NY — Sullivan County has been in negotiations with its primary union, the main unit of Teamsters Local 445, for over two years.

The lack of security and the lack of annual raises that come from being out of contract have negatively impacted staff turnover in the county, said several union members. That turnover in turn impacts the proper functioning of the county, as staff leave and institutional knowledge is lost.

“The county would save money if they didn’t have to constantly hire new workers, train them and then have them quit… the county would run more efficiently if we had workers that were valued and appreciated,” said one union member.

Union members say the county is close to a deal that would end the contract uncertainty.The sticking points in negotiations thus far have centered on questions of raises and health insurance.

County manager Josh Potosek laid out two basic options for a contract in a press conference in April, broadly applicable to all the county’s unions: two-percent raises and the Empire health care plan, or 2.5-percent raises and the Excelsior plan.

Between the two, union members appear to favor the first. “[I’m] happy I get to keep my insurance but two percent is disappointing to say the least,” said one union member. “All this [money] being thrown around except for their employees.”

Pay scales

The full details of the county’s offers to its primary union have not yet been finalized or released.

Three of the county’s unions have so far received contracts: Laborers Local 15, representing the county’s public works employees; the New York State Nurses Association; and the probation unit of Teamsters Local 445. These contracts are roughly similar to these proposed for the main Teamsters unit, according to Potosek.

The NYSNA contract offered a two-percent annual raise; the other two offered 2.5 percent annual raises, along with a four-percent one-time raise in 2022. Union members confirm that they’re seeing annual raises between two percent and 2.5 percent in the proposed contracts. That’s not enough, they say, especially with inflation driving up the cost of living.

“We are in a state of hyperinflation, yet never get a cost-of-living raise,” says one union member. “How can a family survive, especially single parents?”

For some union members, the answer to that question could involve leaving Sullivan County.

A county employee who lives in Mamakating could just as easily work for Orange County, says Potosek. According to members of the union, many do.

Salaries for some surrounding counties—particularly for Orange—are much higher than those in Sullivan.

An average Sullivan County government employee made $49,933 in 2020-2021, according to a report from the Empire Center. That was low compared to other counties in the Mid-Hudson area. The average Orange County employee made $64,428, while the average Ulster County employee—the closest Mid-Hudson average to Sullivan County’s—made $55,942.  

But even though Sullivan’s average pay is low compared to its Mid-Hudson neighbors, it’s high compared to the rest of the state. The counties to Sullivan’s northwest all pay less than it does: Delaware County has an average employee salary of $42,491; Broome, $44,209.

The county’s finances place limits on how much it can pay in salaries, said Potosek.

Sullivan County’s finances support a two-percent increase for every employee, the county manager said. Anything above that, and the county could go over the tax cap, depending on what happens with its other expenses.

The county’s financial picture has recently improved. Auditors from Drescher and Malekai told legislators on July 14 that the county’s finances were now “stable,” largely thanks to increased sales tax revenue.

The takeaway from that success, for Potosek, was to continue to take a conservative approach. “We want to ensure our finances remain stable amidst whatever challenging conditions may come our way.”

Insurance plans

Salaries are only half the story of union negotiations. Pension contributions, health insurance payments and other benefits can add 35 percent or more to personnel costs, according to the Empire Center.

Sullivan County’s offers to its unions have included revisions to the insurance variable in that equation.

The county wants to move workers from the Empire plan, the traditional plan that the New York State Health Insurance Program (NYSHIP) offers, to the Excelsior plan, an alternative, introduced in 2008, that the county considers more affordable.

“A NYSHIP Empire Family plan costs like $33,000,” said Potosek. “That’s probably something like $17, $18 dollars an hour we’re paying in health insurance outside of wages and pension and all our payroll taxes.”

“The cost of health care becomes so costly for us that it crowds out spending in the union contract on other places,” he added. In switching employees to the less-costly Excelsior plan, the county can offer a 2.5-percent raise along with a health reimbursement account that provides employees with a lump sum to use for health expenses.

A core precept of that shift is that the Excelsior plan is just as good as the Empire plan. Many union members don’t see it that way, claiming that the new plan is much worse than what they have now.

“If [an offer] includes lowering our insurance plan to a lesser plan with higher copays, the older group will vote no,” said one member. “New hires are already getting the lesser plan. People with ongoing illnesses... can’t afford their lesser plan.”

Copays are higher across the board under the Excelsior plan when comparing each plan’s 2021 coverage figures. A one-to-30 day supply of drugs costs between $5 and $25 dollars extra under Excelsior, depending on the drug. A 31-to-90 day supply costs between $20 and $80 more.

Copays are up as well for doctor visits, urgent care trips and other medical visits. Some trips that were fully covered under Empire have copays under Excelsior: a hospital room has a $250 dollar copay; radiology, anesthesiology and pathology services have an $85 copay per service; inpatient mental health stays have a $250 copay; and rooms for childbirth have a $250 copay. Other services aren’t covered at all under Excelsior, like hearing aids.

The most a patient pays out-of-pocket for in-network expenses stays the same between plans—$8,550 for an individual and $17,100 for a family—and it increases by $1,000 for out-of-network coinsurance per individual enrolled.

The changes affect people with health concerns more than they do people who are healthy.

A policy memo from NYSHIP issued in 2018 prohibits employers from offering both Empire and Excelsior to the same class of employees because of that difference. “Allowing a participating agency to offer both plans to the same class of employee would likely create a situation wherein healthier individuals opt into the lower-cost Excelsior plan and individuals with greater health concerns opt into the more-comprehensive Empire plan,” it reads.

Sullivan County, union, Teamsters Local 445, insurance


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