By Rich Pollack

    A change in health insurance plans may have been the driving force behind Highland Beach civilian employees’ move to form a union, but some say it is the continuing overall chipping away of benefits that has them most concerned about their future.
    Last month, Highland Beach officials received a notice from the Fraternal Order of Police informing them that eligible town employees not covered by the town’s police union have expressed interest in forming a new collective bargaining unit.
    That action came after the town earlier this summer changed its health insurance benefits to a three-tiered system in which employees would see significant premium increases in order to receive coverage similar to what they previously had received. For some employees with family coverage, that change could be more than $225 a month in additional costs.
    The insurance offered by the town also includes an HMO that would actually reduce the cost to employees, but that requires employees to use only doctors within a limited network. A third plan being offered, similar to the previous plan, includes higher out-of-pocket costs to employees.
    The change in health benefits was challenged by the town’s police officers union — the Fraternal Order of Police — which led to the town’s agreeing to cover the difference between previous premiums and new ones for union members until a new contract is negotiated next year.
    Civilian employees took notice of the union’s success and began taking steps toward organizing.
    “That’s what got the ball rolling,” said one employee, who asked not to be identified.
    Still, the employee said, there are several other benefit reductions that occurred in the past — as well as some that are under discussion — that are hurting not just town staff members but their families.
    “They’re trying to fix things that aren’t broken,” the employee said. “What they’re doing is affecting families.”
    Until this current fiscal year, nonunion employees received a 5 percent annual merit raise, but that was cut to a 3 percent, across-the-board increase beginning Oct. 1. The 3 percent increase is likely to be approved for this coming fiscal year.
    In addition, commissioners had previously agreed to eliminate an education bonus employees received for having college degrees.
    At a meeting last month, commissioners also agreed to eliminate deferred compensation ranging from $250 to $500 that was given to employees who do not have family members enrolled in the town health insurance plan. That change goes into effect Oct. 1.
    Commissioners also adopted a new personal time-off policy that would combine sick days, vacation days and non-federal paid holidays into a fixed number of annual days off calculated for each employee based on longevity. That change goes into effect Jan. 1.  
    There have also been discussions about revisiting the cap on the number of of vacation and sick days employees can bank each year.
    While employees say much has been taken away, members of the town commission point out that there have also been some additional benefits, including longevity pay bonuses when employees   reach milestones, such as 10-, 15-, 20- and 25-year anniversaries. In addition, the town now offers $1,000 per year for medical gap insurance. The commission is also considering an incentive program that would reward employees for ideas that increase effectiveness or efficiency.
Some members of the town staff, according to the employee, are also bothered by Vice Mayor Bill Weitz’s continued use of the phrase “waste, fraud and abuse,” when discussing the need for benefit reductions. They think those claims are unfounded and are unfair to both employees and previous commissions.
    Weitz has repeatedly said that changes he has advocated are designed to correct oversights from the past and are in the overall best interest of the town and its residents.
    Following receipt of a letter from the Fraternal Order of Police last month, town officials added $25,000 to the proposed budget to pay for anticipated legal fees. Those fees could increase, according to Town Attorney Glen Torcivia, should the town and the police union be unable to reach an agreement, which could lead to administrative hearings.
    The employee thinks he and the others would be willing to drop plans to form a union if current employees were exempted from many of the current changes.
    “All of this is fine and dandy if you do it with new employees,” the employee said.

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