By Don McIntosh
On Oct. 4, Multnomah County Commissioners heard a heartfelt plea from a delegation of County health department workers: Honor the county’s contract with their union, AFSCME Local 88.
Several dozen workers who administer Medicaid-funded mental health benefits won’t be Multnomah County employees as of Jan. 1, because the work they do is being transferred to non-profit CareOregon.
Article 21 in the union contract says workers with the most seniority are supposed to be the last to be laid off. Faced with layoff, senior workers even have the right to “bump” (replace) less senior workers in the same job classification anywhere in the county.
But County legal and human resources staff — citing a state law that they say supersedes the union contract — are saying they don’t have to follow that union contract seniority rule because the workers aren’t losing their jobs, just having their jobs transferred to CareOregon.
For workers like those who addressed county commissioners Oct. 4, there are important differences between public and private sector work. At CareOregon, they expect to have lower pay and less generous health benefits. They’d also be leaving the Public Employee Retirement System, and would lose their union and the job security and workplace rights it protects.
“Many of us have chosen a life in public service,” said Sherry Yan, one of four county workers to testify during the public comment period. “Our primary objective as public employees has been ensuring that the needs of our community are being met. Although CareOregon may be a nonprofit entity, their primary perspective will always be that of an insurance company.”
“We’re public servants. We don’t want to work for an insurance company,” said Kristine Britton Dills, a 19-year County health department employee who expects her position to be transferred to CareOregon. “One of the benefits of working for the County is being able to move around and do different things, to learn and grow, but always under the umbrella of the county’s mission and values, always as a public servant,” Britton Dills told commissioners.
The law that Multnomah County managers are citing says the transferred employees, for one year, can’t be laid off or have their salary reduced. But after that, at non-union CareOregon, they would be at-will employees who could have wages and benefits reduced or be let go for any reason.
Oregon AFSCME union representative Eben Pullman says the county is misreading the law. Pullman says the law was intended to give public employees certain minimum protections if their job is transferred from one public employer to another, or to a non-profit that’s contracted to do the same work. It wasn’t intended to supersede greater protections workers might have in a union contract, like the rights that come with seniority.
“More senior employees are more invested in the workplace,” says Local 88 vice president Raymond De Silva, explaining one of the rationales for the union seniority rights protection. “They’re closer to retirement. If they don’t get those last few years [of employment], this will impact their whole retirement, the money they were expecting after they retire. Some of the newer employees that might have been just been hired just in the last 12 months, yes this would displace them, but they are not as invested as the more senior employees.”
DeSilva himself has been a county employee for six years, and is one of the employees who expects to have his County position eliminated in the shift to CareOregon.
The decision to move to CareOregon wasn’t the County’s: The State of Oregon contracts with non-profit Health Share of Oregon to administer the Oregon Health Plan’s mental health and addiction treatment benefits in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. Health Share is what’s known in Oregon health policy jargon as a “coordinated care organization” (CCO). It’s a network that was set up by the counties and the big health providers — Kaiser, Legacy, Providence, OHSU, and Adventist — to focus on prevention and management of chronic conditions like diabetes for people enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan. Until now Health Share has subcontracted management of the behavioral health benefit to county health departments. Now it’s giving the work instead to CareOregon, which administers the Oregon Health Plan’s health and dental benefits in the three counties.
Under the union contract, Local 88 could wait until the layoffs occur and then file a grievance, but it asked — and the County agreed — to arbitrate the dispute before Jan. 1.
In the meantime, with the transition just 12 weeks away, workers say they’ve gotten no information about whose jobs would be transferred, or what the wages, benefits and conditions would be at CareOregon. De Silva said the union has asked the County for an official list and has asked CareOregon for compensation information, working titles and roles, on-boarding documents. Crickets.
Pullman said the list is likely to include case managers who work on the mental health call center and crisis line, quality control and regulatory compliance specialists, and IT and other workers who manage billing and claims adjudication.
At the Oct. 4 commission meeting, health department workers appealed to County Commissioners to step in. The county doesn’t have to spend tax dollars to arbitrate the disagreement.
Chair Kafoury and the commissioners said nothing.
“I was hoping for some acknowledgment,” De Silva said. “There was no comment.”
In an emailed statement, County spokesperson Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said the county knows the move has been difficult and distracting for staff, and has been working with employees who want to stay to find other open positions at the County.
“One of the challenges for everyone is that we are are still negotiating the transfer of this work and don’t have all the answers at this stage in the process,” Sullivan-Springhetti wrote.
De Silva said the union has met with several commissioners individually, and has further meetings scheduled.