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Unions Protest Retiree Health Care Changes

Loud And Clear

Members and retirees of the city of Jamestown’s bargaining units braved the 30-degree weather Monday night on Tracy Plaza to protest a measure in the city’s budget that would transition Medicare-eligible retirees to a Medicare supplement or advantage plan. P-J photos by Cameron Hurst

Members and retirees of the city of Jamestown’s bargaining units braved the 38-degree weather Monday night at Tracy Plaza to protest a measure in the city’s budget that would transition Medicare-eligible retirees to a Medicare supplement or advantage plan.

The Jamestown City Council met in the lobby of the municipal building Monday night in full view of the protest in which demonstrators called on Mayor Eddie Sundquist to “do the right thing” while using painted signs to underscore their message. In his 2020-21 budget, Sundquist proposed the change in health care for retirees which would save the city an estimated $1.1 million.

The measure would affect retirees like former police officer Joe Genco.

“I’m 70 years old and who are they picking on? The people who are 65 and over — that’s ridiculous,” Genco, the retired president of the Kendall Club Police Benevolent Association, told The Post-Journal.

At the rally, Genco passed out copies of the measure in the contract that took effect January 1, 1987. It states that “employees who retire will be eligible for continued participation in the same health and dental insurance plans of the City as provided for active employees provided that such retirees continue to pay the City an amount of money equal to amounts paid towards health and dental insurance premiums as active employees are required to pay to participate in said health and dental insurance plans.”

“They didn’t want us to take a raise back when the city negotiated this,” Genco said. “It was the city’s language and proposal to give health insurance at the time of retirement to the retirees so they could settle the contract. Now they want to take it back unilaterally. It’s wrong. It’s so wrong.”

Bonnie Peters, president of Civil Service Employees Association Local 807, agreed.

“Together, we can see this through with the hopes that it sends a message to the county lawmakers and administrative law judges everywhere that negotiating collective bargaining agreements are a done deal,” she said. “We don’t unilaterally change terms and conditions of what we agree to after the fact. What the mayor is doing to us is morally and ethically bankrupt.”

A sign in protest of a measure in the city of Jamestown’s 2020-21 budget that would transition Medicare-eligible retirees to a Medicare supplement or advantage plan. P-J photo by Cameron Hurst

Peters also voiced frustration that Sundquist sought labor support in a 2018 bid for Congress and in his 2019 campaign for mayor.

“He came to the unions asking for support and now this is the way he wants to treat our retired members? It’s crazy,” she said.

Among the other labor unions represented were the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 418 and International Association of Firefighters Unit 137.

The rally began as city council members were walking into city hall for the meeting. At-large councilman Jeff Russell, a retired police officer, declined to comment on the gathering’s content, but said he “believed in the right to assemble and in freedom of speech.”

After a 6:30 p.m. scheduled budget hearing from the Fenton Historical Society and Department of Development, Sundquist did come out to address the crowd and answer questions prior to the council’s 7:30 p.m. work session.

“I’m always happy to see our union members engaged in what’s going on in the city,” he said. “This has been an incredibly impossible year with the concerns over COVID. But, the reality is that we have found an opportunity to ensure that our retirees, 65-plus, have greater benefits and move them to a fully insured, commercial provider which still saves the city money and will ultimately save our retirees as well. We’re going to continue forward with it. It’s in the council’s hand to move forward.”

Sundquist decried “a message that I’m going to get rid of retiree health care completely.”

“That’s a falsity. … That’s completely not true,” he said, emphasizing that the city’s plan would move retirees to “a fully insured plan and thereby save them money and thereby save the city money in doing so.”

“The benefits remain exactly the same and in fact have increased in enhanced benefits,” he said. “There is not a way for retirees to negotiate for the benefits and active members cannot negotiate for their retirees. They can only negotiate for their active members who would then become retirees. This is a bit of an issue in the city because we have lifetime benefits for our retirees.”

Sundquist said he can “guarantee that once these union members and the retirees sit down and go through the benefits, they’ll find out that they’re getting even better benefits than the current contract calls and there really won’t be much of an issue.”

He did say that Jamestown is one of many cities nationwide that have a “much bigger problem” in the fact that they are “threatened with budget issues which really means that we’re going to have to eventually lay people off or do something else.”

He called on Congress and the federal government to pass a stimulus package that would help alleviate the city’s fiscal stress.

“Until we see a federal stimulus package that helps our cities, we’re going to continue to face these very difficult issues,” he said.

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