ALL things considered, toll collectors on the Ohio Turnpike have it pretty good. They are public sector employees whose work as turnpike cashiers, occasionally dispensing directions as well as change, is not especially taxing. Their hourly wage - around $20 for full-time workers and $15 for part-timers - is the envy of many private sector workers, especially considering that benefits include full health care with no co-pay.
That's why a threatened strike by the turnpike collectors and maintenance workers as soon as Thursday over a proposed contract change in health-care cost sharing is likely to generate little public sympathy. And rightly so.
Still, Teamsters Local 436, representing nearly 1,000 toll road employees, voted to reject what appears to be a reasonable fact-finder's recommendation proposing compromises by both the turnpike commission and its unionized workers.
Turnpike management accepted the fact-finder's recommendations, and the union is OK with the proposed wage increases - 3.5 percent the first year and 3 percent the second and third years for full-time workers. But the union is balking at health insurance co-pay or premium payments.
It's an old issue, of course, between labor and management. Benefits earned in the past via good-faith collective bargaining are suddenly in jeopardy, and unions are not eager to relinquish what management has extended in previous agreements.
But free, or nearly free, health care is a disappearing dinosaur. In Ohio at least 70 percent of the state's public sector employees are required by their employers to pay a portion of their family health coverage premiums.
On average public employees pay about $130 a month for family coverage; most make a co-pay each time they visit the doctor.
By that standard, even the new deal would seem to be a good one for turnpike workers. If they'd rather not make co-pays, they would have the option of paying the premium difference for a plan that requires no co-payment. Family coverage under that would currently amount to about $66 a month.
Local 436 President Gary Tiboni maintains that unlike other situations elsewhere involving "struggling employers," the turnpike commission has never demonstrated a need for such employee contributions toward health-care costs. Besides, the union already agreed to a two-tier system three years ago whereby new employees would pay a percentage of health care capped at $150 for family coverage.
Yet health insurance costs are rising and the trend is toward greater contributions across the board by employees to health-insurance premiums.
Toll collectors and turnpike maintenance workers have it better than most. The highest paid collectors stand to make $22.23 per hour in the proposed contract's final year. Top pay for maintenance workers would be roughly the same while wages for other job classifications inch even higher in the contract's third year, reaching up to $27.69 per hour.
Good for them. But this is a fight that doesn't have to happen. Most taxpayers are not going to support the turnpike workers' position, especially when, as the turnpike commission contends, its health insurance costs have increased by about 81 percent over the past five years.
Even though the turnpike commission vows to keep the 241-mile highway open with a flat schedule of tolls and the use of temporary replacement workers "if necessary," motorists will get fed up fast with slow downs and other strike-related inconveniences.
And drivers' wrath will be reserved not for the commission but for its well paid public employees who balk at co-pays and premium payments that most of the working public takes for granted.
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