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New state labor contracts to kick in without legislative hearing

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Storm clouds above the state Capitol.
The Minnesota State Capitol, June 27, 2019.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News File

Two-year labor contracts for thousands of Minnesota government workers are due to take effect this week now that state lawmakers will miss a deadline to block them.

The deals provide wage increases of more than 2 percent each year but could be higher for employees who aren’t at maximum pay for their positions. There will be some additional health premium costs for employees.

A committee of state lawmakers had the ability to vote to approve or reject the agreements but had to act by Thursday. A hearing of the Subcommittee on Employee Relations was canceled Tuesday, and a key senator said there is no intention of rescheduling it this week, meaning interim approval is granted by default.

The agreements covering more than 30,000 employees were negotiated this summer and ratified by union members. The agreements with the two biggest unions — the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 5 and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees — overlap in many respects but have some differences.

The first 2.25 percent raise for all workers will be retroactive to July. Another across-the-board bump kicks in next July. Many employees are also eligible for seniority and merit raises.

All told, the four contracts that were up for consideration are estimated to boost state labor costs by more than $300 million for the two years they cover. Agencies will have to find ways to manage the extra costs or approach the Legislature for more money.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz said the deals are fiscally sound.

“One of the greatest assets we have in this state is our people. And one of the greatest assets we have in state government is the people who work for state government. We fully expect them to be paid a fair wage,” Walz said this week. “We expect their benefits to be matched to their ability to be able to recruit and retain the best people possible.”

Besides pay increases, there are some notable elements to the new contracts. AFSCME’s deal imposes a $15 minimum hourly wage for covered employees, including student workers, although relatively few make less than that now. MAPE’s agreement expands on recruiting and retention incentives and includes a broader student loan repayment program of up to $5,000 per year for five years.

Sick-leave offerings are also enhanced to allow for use of time to care for adult children, grandparents and grandchildren and other close relatives.

State Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, said he probably would have opposed the contracts had a subcommittee vote been held. He said he is uneasy with the leave and benefit provisions.

Koran said he’s worried that public and private sector benefits are increasingly diverging.

“There’s just this natural progression that the qualifying uses appear to grow at a rapid rate that don’t appear to reflect those things in the private sector,” Koran said.

Koran said he hopes future state contracts set more standards and incentives built around employee productivity and performance.

If the full Legislature fails to ratify the pacts next year, they would be voided. Such an outcome would be historically unusual.

Chet Jorgenson, president of MAPE, said the union was surprised by the sudden cancellation of the hearing. He said the union’s leaders will turn their attention to the next session.

“This contract is crucial for Minnesota to retain and recruit professional employees that provide the high-quality services Minnesotans deserve and expect,” Jorgenson said. “Our members are proud to provide the services Minnesotans rely on, and we look forward to our members having the opportunity to share the importance of that work with the legislature during the 2020 session.”

Agreements are still pending for several smaller bargaining units.