by CHRIS ROGERS
This spring, the Winona City Council is wrapping up its negotiations with employee unions for the next two years, while the Winona County Board is just getting started. So far, workers are getting 2.5- to 2.8-percent annual raises.
City leaders approved contracts with all but one of the city’s unions that offer a 2.5-percent wage increase this year and 2.8-percent next year, while the Winona County Board signed contracts granting 2.75-percent raises this year to one of its unions and to its non-unionized workers.
Employees for both governments got similar raises in 2017 and 2018. The steady wage increases in recent years are a far cry from 2010, when, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the city of Winona froze wages and both governments cut staff.
Over the past five years, wages for local government workers in Winona County have risen faster than private sector workers — 17.5 percent over five years for local government staff versus 11.8 percent in the private sector, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) statistics. However, in 2017 and 2018, local private-sector wages increased 3.5 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively — in the same ballpark as the increases county and city unions recently received.
Because the city is still negotiating with one last union, Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi would not discuss the labor-market trends that led the city to settle on 2.5- and 2.8-percent raises. “Suffice to say there’s many factors that have to come into play. One is our ability to attract and retain talent,” Sarvi stated. The labor market across Southeast Minnesota has been fairly tight in recent years, and, under a program initiated by former city manager Judy Bodway, the city made a big adjustment in 2017, increasing wages and seniority pay in an effort to better attract and retain staff.
Because he is in the early stages of negotiating contracts for 2019-2021 with various county unions, Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz also would not discuss what drove the county to settle on a 2.75-percent raise for a union of criminal justice and community services workers. As a general rule, county and city leaders pay attention to what salary increases state arbitrators award to other municipalities’ unions. If local governments and unions reach a total impasse in negotiations, their contract disputes are decided by arbitrators — lawyers appointed by the state to settle labor conflicts. Those awards can set the going rate for salary increases. Arbitrators recently awarded Wabasha County Teamsters a three-percent raise in 2019, and a Houston County deputies’ union received a three-percent raise in 2019 followed by a three-percent raise in 2020.
Union representatives noted that workers’ salaries have to cover rising costs of living. “One of the issues when I was down there [in Southeast Minnesota] for a short stint is health insurance,” American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 65 Associate Director Shannon Douvier said. “Health insurance increases consistently overrun any [wage] increases you do get, so it’s like you never gain any ground.”
If the city’s final union settles for the same raise as the rest and all city employees get a 2.5-percent wage increase in 2019, it will cost the city around $313,000 in total, Sarvi reported. If all county employees receive a 2.75-percent increase in 2019, it will cost the county approximately $484,000. Both governments can afford those costs because they reserve extra funds in their budgets for just that purpose. “It assumes a certain amount for increases,” Fritz said of the county’s 2019 budget. “We don’t divulge how much because then the unions know how much we have to spend.”