The Associated Press October 5, 2011, 7:27PM ET

Most Ohio union workers affected by insurance rule

Employees of more than 550 school districts, townships and other government units across Ohio will see their share of health care costs rise if voters approve a collective bargaining law this fall, state data show.

Widespread impact of the provision is fueling arguments on both sides.

Supporters say having employees pay a bigger share of their health care costs will bring them in closer alignment with private sector workers and help balance local budgets. Opponents say the data validate that the union-limiting bill will hurt tens of thousands of average workers around the state, who will be required by the law to spend more on benefits.

An Associated Press review of data kept by the State Employment Relations Board finds that state workers and many county and health-district employees already pay more on average than the 15 percent share that will be required under the law. About 77,000 of Ohio's 360,000 unionized government workers are in state and county government.

Unionized township and fire district employees pay the lowest percentages toward health insurance on average, between 2.2 percent for employees of the smallest townships and 5.6 percent, the board's data show. That means those employees would see the biggest jump in costs in their health care premiums if November's Issue 2 passes.

School district employees -- not only teachers, but janitors, bus drivers, cooks and others -- are contributing 9.5 percent toward individual health insurance coverage and 11 percent toward family coverage on average, data show. City employees' contributions average around 8 percent, while college and university employees' contributions average about 13 percent.

Ohio Education Association spokeswoman Michele Prater said the averages mask a trend toward unions agreeing to pay larger shares of their health care and pension costs around the state, often alongside a pay cut or freeze. In other words, half of Ohio's 196,000 school district employees are already paying above the average for their sector, and half less.

Prater pointed to suburban Columbus' Southwestern Schools, where employees contribute between 28 percent to 35 percent toward health care and make $38,000 a year on average. Licking Valley Local Schools employees pay nearly 36 percent toward health insurance and make $31,000 a year on average, she said.

The health care provision of Senate Bill 5, signed by Gov. John Kasich in March, has been characterized in statewide advertising by Building a Better Ohio, the campaign defending the sweeping law, as a nod to basic fairness. The campaign's commercial also includes a reference to the bill's requirement that union workers will have to pay at least 10 percent toward their pensions.

Jason Mauk, a spokesman for the "vote yes" campaign, said private sector employees are already paying more than 15 percent toward their health care on average.

"The disparity between the public and private sectors, particularly in the area of health care, is financially unsustainable," he said. "You have some government employees in Ohio who pay nothing for their health care and you have private sector employees who are paying on average between 25 and 31 percent. That's an issue of fairness, and certainly an issue of affordability."

Melissa Fazekas, a spokeswoman for We Are Ohio, the campaign seeking to repeal Senate Bill 5, said health insurance contributions are just one small part of a voluminous, dangerous bill.

"Issue 2 fundamentally takes away the collective bargaining rights of hard-working Ohioans," she said. "It is a flawed bill that is unfair and unsafe for firefighters, police officers, teachers, nurses and our communities."

Opponents of the bill emphasize that union contracts around the state contain salary and benefits packages that were bargained in good faith and should not be negated by the state legislation.


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