HOLLIDAYSBURG — About 200 unionized Blair County employees will receive no wage increase this year, but they won’t have to pay more toward health insurance, an arbitrator ruled Thursday.
To resolve a standoff between county commissioners and employees represented by the United Mine Workers of America, arbitrator Michael E. Zobrak said the county offered “compelling evidence of a real and substantial budget crisis.”
“The [wage freeze] is necessary to give the county an opportunity to correct its budget crisis for next year and beyond,” Zobrak wrote.
The ruling affects court-related and noncourt related employees who work at the courthouse.
UMWA representative Dan Bass asked Zobrak during a Feb. 19 hearing to award a 5 percent raise to employees. He has described their salaries as far below average. The typical starting pay is $13,013 plus benefits.
Bass did not return a phone call Thursday seeking comment.
Commissioner Donna Gority said the ruling was a relief.
“We’d rather we could give everyone in the union a raise and everyone who’s not in the union a raise ... but it’s just not in the budget,” Gority said.
Commissioners adopted a 2008 budget with salary increases only for employees covered by existing union contracts.
Attorney David P. Andrews, who represented the county before Zobrak, used testimony from commissioners and Controller Richard J. Peo and financial data to make the case that awarding a raise to union employees would force layoffs.
“It wasn’t very hard for me to argue a crisis, looking at the numbers,” Andrews said. “This is a very difficult situation they’re in.”
Zobrak said he found testimony from county officials to be credible and settled on the wage freeze as a way “to prevent severe consequences [to] bargaining unit members.”
He also used the wage freeze as a reason to reject the county’s request for employees to pay more toward their health insurance packages. When their wages are frozen, that would be “patently unfair,” Zobrak said.
Commissioners have been looking for cheaper health insurance but said this week that the best option may be to retain their current policy that increases 14 percent as of April 1.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.