By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Dozens of state workers picketed at two Quincy locations Tuesday to express frustration about the lack of progress on contract negotiations between the state and its largest employee union. They also voiced concern about proposed pension reforms and higher health insurance costs.
Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1787 conducted informational picketing during the noon hour at the corner of Third and Maine and from 2 to 4 p.m. at the 12th Street entrance to the Illinois Veterans Home.
John King, the AFSCME local's president, said the purpose of the picketing was primarily to call attention to the union's frustration over stalled contract negotiations.
"We've been over 10 months trying to get a contract together," King said.
The AFSCME's current four-year contract expired at the end of June, but both sides agreed to extend the agreement while negotiations continued.
"Normally, we're done about May or June" in any year that a contract is expiring, King said.
But not in 2012. Talks this year have progressed at a snail's pace. Then in September, the union sent an email to members declaring a "virtual standstill" in the negotiations because the union balked at concessions being demanded by Gov. Pat Quinn's administration.
The email said the requested concessions included moving every employee down two pay grades in the first year of the new contract and then freezing wages for two more years, according to several news media outlets that received copies of the email.
Proposed increases in employee-paid health insurance premiums are another big concern for state workers, King said.
"They want to triple that to where we can't even afford it," he said.
King said union members feel that Quinn "is not bargaining with us. He's just playing around with it and not doing his part" to reach a new contract agreement.
Proposed pension reform also is a concern for AFSCME members.
"The state is continuously trying to hit our pension all the time," King said.
He said many Illinois residents have the mistaken belief that state employees' pensions are provided at no cost to the employees.
"We pay our part of the pension. It comes out of my paycheck stub every two weeks," King said. He said the state is "supposed to contribute" to the pension fund, as well, but hasn't been meeting its obligation.
The state "spends it on other projects," King said. "Now we don't have any money for the pension. That's not our fault. We continue to pay in."
Abdon Pallasch, assistant budget director for Illinois, acknowledged that the state and AFSCME have not yet reached accord on a new contract.
"We have made significant efforts to compromise, but the state government employees' union continues to seek pay increases, which are not affordable to the taxpayers of Illinois in these difficult economic times," Pallasch said. "We are committed to securing a fair contract that is affordable to the taxpayers."
Pallasch provided The Herald-Whig with statistics showing that state employees in Illinois already are earning an average of 23 percent more than similar employees in eight comparable states.
For example, he said correctional officers in Illinois earn an average base salary of $55,032 a year compared with an average of $44,931 in the comparable states. Meanwhile, human service caseworkers in Illinois earn an average base salary of $60,600 a year compared with $45,955 in comparable states.
Pallasch said Illinois has 50,346 state employees and 95 percent of them belong to unions. The AFSCME represents 82.4 percent of the state's unionized workers, he said.
Pallasch also presented some statistics showing how Illinois' growing pension obligation is taking a bigger bite out of the state budget every year. In 2008, he said, the state's pension contribution totaled $1.8 billion. In fiscal 2013, he said, the state's pension contribution is expected to total $5.1 billion.
He said cuts to education and social services were needed in recent years because of the growing pension crisis and more cuts will be needed in the future unless the General Assembly passes pension reform and state employees accept the governor's proposed salary freeze.