Qwest pact raises questions
New health care enrollment fee confuses employees

By Jeff Smith, Rocky Mountain News
Thursday, August 18, 2005

Union officials were barraged Wednesday by questions about health care changes, and additional details of the three-year tentative agreement between Qwest Communications and some its workers emerged.

The union representing 25,000 Qwest employees lost on its efforts to win additional job security for customer service employees, but it got the company to drop a proposed two-tiered pension system.
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Annie Hill, vice president of District 7 of the Communications Workers of America, said many members were confused by the new health care enrollment fee.

The fee is $300 a year for one dependent and $400 a year for more than one dependent.  In other words, the most a family will pay is $400 a year.  Retirees don't pay an enrollment fee, nor do single employees.

Hill said she wouldn't disclose job security/outsourcing provisions until members had seen the final bargaining report, probably issued today.  She did say there had been no change to an agreement signed eight months ago related to the outsourcing of customer sales and service jobs.

That agreement required Qwest to take back more than 1,000 customer service jobs into the union but at a lower $10-an-hour wage rate for new hires.  The agreement also required Qwest to keep existing call centers open but only through Dec. 31.

"There's no guarantee beyond that," Hill said, "but that doesn't mean that all of a sudden centers will close.  In fact, many of those centers are actually putting new people in, so we take that as a good sign that Qwest is growing those centers and they will remain open."

Qwest didn't comment about the issue, but spokesman Steve Hammack said Qwest has about 16 small-business and residential customer sales and service centers in its 14-state region.

Donna Jaegers, a telecommunications analyst at Janco Partners in Greenwood Village, said her understanding is that the union didn't win any new job-security commitments.

But, she said, Qwest Chief Executive Dick Notebaert "philosophically is against a lot of outsourcing, saying that while it looks good on the front end, (vendors) then nickel-and-dime you."

The tentative agreement, which also included wage increases of 7.5 percent over three years, must be ratified by a majority of the union members by Oct. 1.

Hill predicted that would happen.

"Considering all the factors, it's a good agreement," she said.

Several union workers concurred, although most say they want to see details of the final contract first.

"People are pretty pleased with what we've got," said Debbie Wolfe, a service assurance technician who was answering telephone calls at CWA Local 7777's old strike line.  "I personally think it's a pretty good contract."

The ratification process will take awhile.

Local 7777 President Duncan Harrington said local presidents typically are brought into Denver for a detailed briefing by district officials.  They go back to their members to explain the contract.  In the case of Local 7777, which has nearly 3,000 members, the vote will be done by mail.

Jaegers, who also views the deal as good for the union, said she didn't think there would be much financial impact on Qwest.  She said she already had calculated a 2 percent annual wage increase into her company earnings forecast.

Qwest might save more than expected in health care costs, she said, if the dependent enrollment fee results in some spouses of Qwest workers going back to their employers' plans.

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