Thursday, May 01, 2014

Employer’s unilateral discontinuing its past practice of paying the full cost of health insurance for its retirees held a violation of §209-a.1(d) of the Taylor Law


Employer’s unilateral discontinuing its past practice of paying the full cost of health insurance for its retirees held a violation of §209-a.1(d) of the Taylor Law
Improper Employer Practice Case No. U-31625 [PERB]

A collective bargaining agreement [CBA] with a term of June 1, 2003 to May 31, 2007, was the last agreement that a former collective bargaining representative negotiated with the Village. Article 15, §4 of that agreement provides that the Village will pay the full cost of health insurance premiums for unit employees hired before December 31,1988, and that employees hired after that date will contribute to the cost of their health insurance premiums if future annual increases exceed a certain amount. Article 15 also authorizes the Village to collect the amount of the employee contribution through payroll deduction. That provision was first included in the 1988-1991 CBA and was continued unchanged in all subsequent agreements, up to and including the 2003-2007 CBA.

Despite the existence and continuation of language set out in the 1988-1991 CBA providing for a contribution to health insurance premiums by post-1988 employees, for seventeen years the Village never sought to require unit employees to pay such contributions. However, on June 1, 2005, the Village began deducting the contractual health insurance contribution from the pay of post-1988 employees.

A contract grievance was filed and the arbitrator, in an award dated June 23, 2006, found that the Village did not violate the CBA when it began collecting the contractual health insurance contribution in 2005.

The first CBA negotiated by a successor collective bargaining representative with the Village had a term of June 1, 2007 to May 31, 2012 and provided for employee contributions for health insurance.   

However, all CBAs up to and including the 2003-2007 agreement were silent with respect to the payment of health insurance benefits to employees during their retirement from the Village and until August 2011, the Village paid the entire cost of health insurance premiums for all unit employees upon and during their retirement. Further, there was testimony in the record in the instant hearing that when the parties were negotiating employee contributions towards health care premiums, they were discussing contributions to be paid by active employees and that as the “offer letter” that resulted in the new CBAs did not contain the word “active,” it was subsequently added “to ensure that the health insurance provision [in the collective bargaining agreement] was not interpreted to apply to retirees.”

The parties stipulated that two post-1988 employees retired in, respectively, April and September, 2004, and that the Village paid the full cost of health insurance for them while they were employed and has continued to do so during their retirement

In August 2011 a unit employee, who had initially commenced his employment with the Village after December 31, 1988, retired. Immediately before his retirement, the employee was contributing towards the  cost of his health insurance premium and the Village was paying the remainder. Upon his retirement, the Village continued to charge the individual a ten percent contribution and to pay the remainder of the cost of his health insurance premium. This individual was the first unit employee who, upon retirement, was required to pay a contribution towards the cost of his health insurance premium.

A Public Employment Relations Board Administrative Law Judge found that the 2007-2012 CBAs, and all prior agreements, “simply does not refer to retirees or what health insurance benefit current employees will receive in retirement.” Further, the ALJ found §4 of Article 15 of the 1988-1991 agreement is appropriately interpreted as silent with respect to the practice here in issue. This finding, said the ALJ, was supported not only by the plain language of that provision but by the fact that "when the parties intended to affect a benefit granted to current employees that continues into retirement, they specifically so state.”

Further, said the ALJ, “the record evidence regarding the negotiations for the 2003-2007 CBA clearly shows that the parties did not negotiate the issue of what current employees would receive in retirement.”

Addressing the employee organization’s alleged past practice claim, the Administrative Law Judge explained that “To establish an enforceable past practice that cannot be unilaterally changed without negotiation, the charging party must demonstrate that the ‘practice was unequivocal and was continued uninterrupted for a period of time sufficient under the circumstances to create a reasonable expectation among the affected unit employees that the [practice] would continue.’ In addition, the practice must concern a mandatory subject of negotiation.”

As to the argument advanced by the Village that PERB lacked jurisdiction and the employee organization lacked standing to consider the employee organization's allegations because the complaint pertains to retirees, the ALJ said that the charge filed by the employee organization “makes clear that it is not seeking to enforce the rights of already retired persons, but to enforce the practice with respect to current employees who retire in the future.”

The Village also contended that the subject matter in issue is nonmandatorily and not negotiable because it pertains to retirement benefits,* The ALJ pointed out that although PERB has held that a demand for health insurance benefits for former employees who have already retired is nonmandatory, the subject of health insurance benefits for current employees upon their retirement constitutes a form of deferred compensation and is mandatorily negotiable.

The Administrative Law Judge found that an employer’s unilateral change of an enforceable past practice concerning health care benefits for current employees upon their retirement violates §209-a.1(d) of the Taylor Law.The ALJ also found that the record shows that the unit employees were aware of the practice regarding their receipt of fully paid health insurance during retirement and that they expected the practice to continue.

Holding that the Village violated §209-a.1(d) of the Taylor Law, the Administrative Law Judge ordered the Village to:

1. Rescind its directive that unit employees hired after December 31, 1988, will be required to pay a health insurance contribution during retirement; and

2. Not unilaterally change the past practice of paying the full cost of health insurance premiums for current unit employees during retirement; and

3. Make whole any unit employees who retired during or after August 2011 and who have been required to contribute towards the cost of health insurance.

* In Lippman v Sewanhaka Central High School District, 66 NY2d 313, the court held that health insurance was not a retirement benefit within the meaning of Article 5, Section 7, of the State Constitution.
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