OPEIU Local 11 ‘joint accord’ at Northwest Natural guarantees no layoffs for 5.5 years

Members of Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU) Local 11 ratified a new five-and-a-half-year “joint accord” at Northwest Natural Gas Co. that guarantees no layoffs for bargaining unit employees hired on or before Nov. 30, 2013. The contract was ratified by a margin of 77.5 percent in voting held May 22. The new collective bargaining agreement runs until Nov. 30, 2019.

The union represents just over 600 employees in 107 job categories at the gas company —  including office staff and outside gas and construction workers.

The new contract includes wage adjustments the first year that bring job classifications to “market value.” The new numbers are based on a wage comparison study the sides conducted during negotiations.

“Some of our members were underpaid; others were considered overpaid,” said Rick Wilson, Local 11 business rep and lead negotiator.

The average wage increase works out to be 7.8 percent, though some work classifications will receive more than that — as much as 21 percent, while others receive less, Wilson said. Those who were deemed overpaid received a 1 percent bonus the first year.

All workers in the bargaining unit will receive a  wage increase of at least 3 percent in each of the remaining four years of the agreement. If the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners (CPI-W) increases by 4 percent or more, a cost-of-living-adjustment formula kicks in that will tack on even more to the raises.

Wages at the gas company range from $15 an hour for entry level jobs to $40 an hour for senior employees.

There were some changes made to the health insurance policy. Northwest Natural will pay 85 percent of employee health insurance premiums if the employee participates in an annual health risk assessment. Wilson said the assessment includes an online survey and standard (finger prick) blood test. Employees who don’t participate must pay 20 percent of the premium cost, which currently is $1,334.55 a month.

Northwest Natural agreed to increase its match on employee contributions to a 401(k) savings plan. The current formula is a 50 percent match, up to a maximum of 4 percent of an employee’s gross wage. That will increase in 2016 to a 50 percent match, up to a maximum of 6 percent of an employee’s gross wage.

NW Natural also contributes to a company-sponsored defined benefit pension plan.

Last December, NW Natural withdrew from a third pension plan — the Western States OPEIU Pension. The withdrawal was allowed under terms of the previous collective bargaining agreement. The company has paid into the multi-employer defined benefit pension plan since 2004. However, the plan is in critical status under the Pension Protection Act. Last year, plan trustees (of which NW Natural chief administrative officer Lea Anne Doolittle is one) announced its status as “forestalling insolvency.” According to NW Natural’s most recent Security and Exchange Commission 10-K filing, it incurred a withdrawal liability of $8.3 million. The company made arrangements to pay $600,000 a year to the plan for the next 20 years. Vested participants will receive all benefits accrued through the date of the withdrawal — Dec. 31, 2013 — or until the plan becomes insolvent, at which time the government-run Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) will step in.

NW Natural was paying 30 cents an hour per bargaining unit member at the time of the withdrawal.

“We’re happy with the results of the new joint accord,” said Local 11 Executive Secretary-Treasurer Mike Richards. “We’ve had an excellent labor-management partnership at the gas company that works very well. We look forward to continuing that in the years to come.”

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