Court Worker Unions Sue Over Cuts in Benes

     CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CN) – Unions representing 6,500 state court employees sued New York State for changing members’ health care benefits while contract negotiations were still under way.
     The unions said the tactic is a violation of the federal and state constitutions and collective bargaining laws.
     “At issue here is whether the defendants can seize on the political climate of the day, single out certain public employees, and illegally and unconstitutionally renege on its collectively bargained contracts,” according to the federal complaint.
     Plaintiffs, who demand a jury trial, are eight unions and their presidents on behalf of nonjudicial employees in civil, criminal and family courts in New York City and Nassau and Suffolk counties.
     Defendants include New York State, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti, the state Civil Service Commission, state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli and state Budget Director Robert L. Megna.
     The plaintiffs seek declaratory, injunctive and monetary relief for changes that increased the costs of health insurance benefits for unionized court employees, which changes were made by the state after it secured a new contract with the Civil Service Employees Association.
     Specifically, the plaintiffs want a new section of civil service law declared unconstitutional because it “impermissibly impairs the obligation of contract and violates the due-process rights of the plaintiff court unions and their members, by, among other things, increasing costs to and reducing benefits for employees.”
     The new provision, passed by the Legislature in August 2011, changed the long-standing arrangement under which current and retired state employees share the costs of health insurance benefits.
     Since 1983, the state has been required under civil service law to pay 90 percent of the premium for individual coverage and 75 percent of the premium for dependents, according to the complaint.
     Some 1.2 million state employees, their dependents and retirees receive coverage under a statewide health plan known as the New York State Health Insurance Program, or NYSHIP, which dates to 1957. NYSHIP provides coverage through the Empire Plan, its own preferred-provider organization, and 12 health maintenance organizations statewide.
     Empire Plan benefits are determined by collective bargaining between the state and various employee unions, and thus change from time to time as new contracts are implemented. But, the complaint states, “the benefit design cannot deviate from that which has been collectively bargained.”
     However, late last summer the Legislature amended a section of the civil service law governing the state contribution rates – the 90 percent and 75 percent of coverage that New York picks up – removing language that permitted only “increased” state contribution rates, and allowing the rates to be “modified” by collective bargaining.
     When the Civil Service Employees Association – New York’s largest employee union, with more than 65,000 members – subsequently ratified a new 5-year contract that changed the state contribution rate and increased the workers’ share of the costs, the state decided to extend the changes to all unrepresented employees designated as management/confidential, employees of the Unified Court System – including the nonjudicial court workers – and employees of the Legislature, according to the complaint.
     The changes reduced the state contribution of 90 percent and 75 percent by a couple of percentage points each.
     The changes occurred against a financially challenging backdrop for New York.
     For the 2011-12 fiscal year, the state set a target of $450 million in workforce savings, which it said could be achieved through belt-tightening or the wholesale layoff of thousands of state workers. CSEA, the Public Employees Federation and other unions chose new multiyear contracts with modest pay increases and higher insurance premiums to protect members’ state jobs.
     The eight court unions, however, are still negotiating new contracts to succeed those that expired on March 31, 2011. Since no new contracts are in place, the previous ones should continue, the unions say in their complaint. “It is violative of state law to unilaterally impose any change in the kind and level of health insurance benefits or plan administration, including the amount of employee contributions to premiums,” the complaint states.
     The plaintiffs ask that the court find the changes to the state contribution rate as applied to the eight unions violate the U.S. and state constitutions and thus are void; that the changes breach the unions’ collective bargaining agreements; and that the defendants acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner.
     They want the defendants permanently enjoined from applying the changes to members of the eight unions – and thus taking deductions from their paychecks or pension payments. They also seek damages for union members who face additional costs to continue their benefits.
     Plaintiffs include Barbara G. Brown as president and on behalf of the Citywide Association of Law Assistants; Arthur Cheliotes as president and on behalf of Local 1180, Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO; John Clancy as president and on behalf of the Court Officers Benevolent Association of Nassau County; Clifford Koppelman as president and on behalf of Local 1070, District Council 37 AFSCME, AFL-CIO; Brenda Levinson as president and on behalf of the Court Attorneys Association of the City of New York; Christopher Manning as president and on behalf of the Suffolk County Court Employees Association Inc.; John Strandberg as president and on behalf of the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association; and Joseph C. Walsh as president and on behalf of the New York State Court Clerks Association.
     They are represented by Harry Greenberg, with Greenberg Burzichelli Greenberg, of Lake Success.

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