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Arbitrator says 'no' to pay freeze

St. Croix County's attempt to freeze wages for union workers at the county's financially struggling nursing home for a year was rejected last week by a state arbitrator.

The workers will get the increases proposed by their union: a two percent increase on Jan. 1, 2006 and a one percent increase effective July 1, 2006. The county and union agreed that the nursing home workers would get a two percent increase on Jan. 1, 2007 and a one percent increase on July 1, 2007.

The union group includes 112 current or former certified nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses, housekeepers, laundry workers and cooks, said Finance Director Michelle Pietrick. The 2006 wages proposed by the county ranged from $12.48 to $19.13 per hour.

No estimate of the cost of the raises or back pay was available last Monday.

Arguing that nursing home deficits have been eating up the county's allowable tax levy increases for the past two years, county negotiators said freezing pay is just one step being taken to reduce costs at the nursing home. Others included replacing the previous administrator with a contracted employee and eliminating three positions.

Caught between high nursing home costs and state property tax caps, the county has no alternative but to explore a potential sale, lease or public/private partnership, claimed Stephen Weld, the attorney who represents St. Croix in employee negotiations.

'One could argue,' he wrote, 'that the county's final offer provides a certain measure of job security to the health care center's employees, in that the lower cost of continued operations, the more likely the center will continue those operations.'

Union negotiator Steve Hartman countered that because the county's economic growth exceeds that of other counties, St. Croix "is not faced with the inability to pay, but the unwillingness to pay."

The county's nursing home workers deserve the same treatment given to other county employees, argued Hartman.

"It is a political decision for the county to operate a nursing home, and, if it elects to do so, it has the responsibility and duty to provide fair and just wage increases just as it has for other county employees," Hartman said.

Arbitrator William Petrie, Waterford, concluded that it would be unfair to freeze the pay of nursing home workers but not other county employees, that freezing pay does not account for cost of living increases, that other examples of homes that froze worker pay all involved non-union homes, that other counties with nursing homes gave their employees raises and that the county didn't offer any concessions for the intended freeze.