By Marcy Stamper

Eight of the unions that represent Okanogan County employees are in mediation after repeated efforts to settle expired contracts proved unsuccessful.

A ninth union is still in negotiations, according to attorney Rocky Jackson, who was hired by Okanogan County in the fall to conduct negotiations on behalf of the county commissioners.

The eight bargaining units cover most county employees, including staff in the Public Works and Juvenile and Family Services departments, and in the prosecutor’s, treasurer’s, and auditor’s offices.

Jackson would not provide details about the unresolved issues, but said they relate mainly to wages and medical benefits.

The nine contracts expired at the end of last year, but the provisions remain valid until a new contract is signed, said Nanette Kallunki, administrative services director for Okanogan County, who handled union negotiations for the county during the past five years.

Jackson said he met with negotiators for the six groups represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and a mediator from the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) last week. While Jackson could not divulge details about the negotiations, he said “progress was made in mediation, and there may be some groups that are closer to resolution than others.”

The Teamsters are most concerned about finding a way to offset a health-insurance-premium increase of about $100 a month, said Paul Parmley, business representative for the Teamsters, who is handling negotiations for their units. “At this point, we’d just like to break even,” he said.

The Teamsters were seeking a three-year contract with wage increases from 2 to 3 percent, based on the annual consumer-price index, said Leonard Crouch, secretary/treasurer of the Teamsters local in central Washington.

Because progress has been so slow, Parmley doubted that they will be able to settle on more than a one-year contract, predicting they would be back in negotiations later this year. He said the main progress was that the county withdrew its initial proposal of a 2-percent reduction in wages.

Jackson said he was awaiting a response from the Teamsters after last week’s meetings. Jackson and the mediator will be back in Okanogan County this week to talk with the Sheriff’s Guild, which represents field deputies.

The county and its unions have been in mediation before, but this is the first time in the past five years that all eight units have proceeded to mediation, said Kallunki.

Kallunki said she had not been briefed on the details of the current negotiations, but said that the unions and the county typically present proposals in August and begin talks in September. They held their first meeting last August but the commissioners decided to have Jackson take over the negotiations, she said. Jackson first met with the parties in November.

PERC provides mediators to assist the parties in understanding one another’s positions, said Mike Sellars, PERC’s executive director. PERC is a state agency and there is no fee to the county for the mediator’s services.

The commissioners signed the agreement with Jackson, who is with the law firm of Menke Jackson Beyer in Yakima, in September. It provides for $150 to $175 per hour, depending on the union involved, for representing the county in negotiations and mediation; $140 per hour for travel time; and lower rates for administrative support. Jackson said he had come to the county three or four times in the course of negotiations and mediation.

Jackson said he had handled union negotiations for Okanogan County in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“We have someone we have worked well with in the past, who is a skilled negotiator,” said Parmley about Kallunki. “The county will incur costs because they are using a paid negotiator.”

Jackson also met last week with the negotiator for employees covered by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). They are reviewing the county’s proposal, he said.

Most of the bargaining units entered into mediation in January, and the sheriff’s deputies started their mediation process in February, said Jackson. The AFSCME group is still bargaining and not in mediation.

The county commissioners did not return calls seeking more information about the negotiations.

Parmley said the Teamsters groups will be deciding on their next course of action and do not have another mediation scheduled. “We had hoped to see something more substantive in the last mediation,” he said.