BROOKSVILLE — The first contract talks between Hernando County and the union representing government workers opened Friday with a method aimed at collegial negotiations.
That spirit may be needed as the county is facing a $5 million-plus revenue shortfall in the coming budget, and cuts affecting employees are certain to be on the table.
The county and Teamsters Local 79 traded lists of issues and concerns using a method called "interest-based bargaining.'' Instead of trading proposals, then holding private caucuses to discuss each team's position, the group talks through issues and concerns together.
For management, the issues include finding a more affordable health insurance option that would provide adequate health care coverage at better rates. Also on the list was a plan to "reduce costs and offer competitive benefits'' in relation to paid time off and cash-outs for departing employees.
Both issues are on the list because the county needs to reduce costs, Administrative Services director Cheryl Marsden told the group.
The county is reviewing its insurance options both through the county's broker and the Teamsters-offered insurance through Central States Funds.
Cost reductions are also being sought in the expense of paying out unused paid time off when employees leave the county.
"It's very costly,'' Marsden said, and county commissioners are interested in adjusting their policies.
One issue raised by commissioners is whether employees fired for cause should still get their accrued paid time off. Union members questioned whether that could be changed because it was something earned by the employees but Marsden insisted that some counties in Florida do not award fired employees their lump sum amount.
The union's list of concerns includes several related to the county's financial position. The primary one was a fear that prisoner work crews could replace laid-off county employees.
"We're hoping that there are no more layoffs ever,'' said Teamsters business agent Steve Mosely. "We don't want to see prisoners mowing grass when we've got employees laid off.''
The Teamsters, who represent 440 of the county's 663 workers, also want to see a change in the disciplinary system to allow more evidence to come forward earlier in the process rather than at the same time a worker is told he or she is suspended or fired.
The union also is asking for inclusion of its members on county committees that affect working conditions and benefits.
The teams grappled with the details on some smaller issues to round out their Friday session. They agreed with the concept of limiting the amount of time an employee can be working in an upgraded position and collecting extra money called "step-up pay.''
Marsden said that with the many job cuts and the shrinking work force, some people have stayed in upgraded jobs for some time without the position changes being formalized as permanent. Sometimes, however, getting that new job title doesn't mean a pay increase, she said.
The teams plan to meet again from 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Friday to continue negotiations.
The County Commission is slated to take up the topics of employee benefits and department budgets during a budget workshop at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the commission chambers.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.