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More than 370 county employees not covered by a union could lose their longevity pay, a traditional benefit for many county and city employees.

That move would save the county an estimated $117,000 over 12 months, Personnel Director Mark Koller said.

Veteran employees get an automatic hourly pay increase every five years, beginning with their sixth year, under a personnel rule that applies to workers not represented by a union.

The specific amount ranges from 11.8 cents per hour (which amounts to $245) beginning in the sixth year to 48.1 cents per hour ($1,000 a year) beginning in the 26th year.

That is identical to the longevity pay plan for the more than 300 employees covered by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

Although county commissioners and staff cannot talk about union negotiations, it appears longevity pay is also a part of ongoing contract negotiations with AFSCME.

The county's personnel board last week rejected the idea of ending longevity pay for unrepresented workers after a public hearing at which employees asked that the benefit be continued and suggested the rush to get the issue through the board was a ploy to affect union negotiations.

The Lancaster County Board had asked the personnel board to agree to remove longevity pay from personnel rules, thus ending it for workers not covered by union contracts.

Joy Shiffermiller, attorney for AFSCME, said she told the personnel board the only possible reason for bringing the rule change to them was to influence negotiations.

Some personnel board members were frustrated because Personnel Department staff would not give them information on the financial impact of the change when it was obvious cost was an important part of the discussion.

The Personnel Department "failed or refused to provide us any documents, financial or otherwise, as to why these change are needed," said attorney Kathleen Neary, who represents employees on the board.

The economics of the situation should not be part of the personnel board decision, Koller said.

"That's not their arena," he said.

County commissioners do not need to heed the board's advice,  Koller said. Seeking their advice is part of the official process in changing rules. But on rules, the board is advisory only, he said.

The County Board will not be considering this rule change in the next few weeks, Chairwoman Deb Schorr said.

Action on the rule change presumably would occur after the county has completed negotiations with the AFSCME.

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"The intent of the board is to make sure that all employees are treated fairly," Schorr said.

Speaking at the personnel board meeting, Sheriff Terry Wagner also argued that the county should provide similar benefits to all employees.

Wagner said he had a number of unrepresented workers who supervise union workers but whose raises have not kept pace with AFSCME pay over the past few years.

"It's not fair to take away things that their subordinates are getting," Wagner said he told the personnel board.

As it tries to live with cuts in state aid, the County Board also is looking at options short of ending longevity pay.

Eliminating longevity pay for all county workers -- sheriff's deputies, AFSCME and unrepresented workers -- would save an estimated $315,000 over 12 months, Koller said.

Longevity pay is no longer a prevalent practice in similar counties, Schorr said last week.

That's important, because government union contracts in Nebraska are based on comparisons with like government workers in similar-sized communities.

Most city employees have longevity as a factor in their wages, but cities have different comparison groups from county government, Schorr said.

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Reach Nancy Hicks at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com.

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