Rick Gilley, business representative for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, on June 20 discusses the local union’s grievance against the town of Topsham. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

TOPSHAM — The Board of Selectmen on June 20 unanimously upheld Town Manager Rich Roedner’s ruling on a union grievance over health reimbursement accounts.

The grievance was filed in March by Tom Lister, the town’s code enforcement officer and steward of the operations unit of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local S89, and Mike Labbe, Topsham’s emergency medical services director and the union’s supervisory unit steward.

Labbe said after last week’s meeting that he would have to talk with Lister, who was on vacation and unable to attend, about whether to take the matter to third-party arbitration.

The three-year collective bargaining agreement between the town and union that runs through the end of this month stipulated the town would fund a health reimbursement account for the nearly 30 IAM members who have health insurance.

The town’s insurance provider, the Maine Municipal Employees Health Trust (a subsidiary of the Maine Municipal Association), had set maximum out-of-pocket payments of $3,000 for individuals and $6,000 for people with family plans – numbers that Roedner noted were not in the contract language.

The town’s agreed-upon reimbursement to those employees was $2,500 for those with single coverage and $5,000 for family plans – numbers that were in the contract – which resulted in out-of-pocket costs for employees being capped at $500 and $1,000.

But MMA raised the maximum out-of-pocket totals in January 2018 to $3,500 for single plans and $7,000 for families. The HRA did not rise accordingly. Two employees have exceeded the out-of-pocket cap, according to Rick Gilley, a business representative with IAM.

“We didn’t file a grievance until somebody actually went over that deductible,” he told selectmen. The amount over was no more than $1,000, he said.

The union claims the town breached its contract, since it “has raised the maximum out of pocket without a corresponding increase in the HRA totals,” Roedner said in a March 28 memo to selectmen. The grievance first went to him March 13, and he issued a denial of breach the following day, prompting the union to appeal his decision to the Board of Selectmen.

The contract “clearly stated the limits of the HRA allowance at $2,500/$5,000, and no provisions were included to increase that level due to actions by any third parties, such as MMA raised out of pocket levels, or even the federal and state governments implementing limits on the total value of the HRA,” Roedner wrote.

“The contract says how much we’re going to put into the HRA, not what the out-of-pocket totals are going to be for the employee,” he told selectmen last week.

In its grievance, the union requested “that the contract be made whole in every way,” including funding the HRA so that out-of-pocket expenses would not exceed $500/$1,000; that the funding be made retroactive to the beginning date of the contract, and that covered employees who exceeded the out-of-pocket amount be paid back for that extra amount.

Selectmen originally heard the matter in the spring and upheld Roedner’s ruling. Because the manager had provided notice of the meeting to employees that represent the union, but not the union itself, the grievance had to return to the board for reconsideration, Roedner said.

He noted after the meeting that for the town to change plans during a contract it would have to renegotiate the insurance plan. “The contract specifies the plan, not the cost,” he explained. “So we all assume we split the cost as agreed, no matter how the cost changes. With the HRA, we agreed to a specific amount to include. That is the heart of the issue.”

The out-of-pocket cap was not included in the contract, “but it was mutually agreed to between the negotiating committee and the town,” Gilley said.

“A contract is a contract,” Selectman Ruth Lyons said. “Verbal is not a contract. It might have been discussed, but it wasn’t in writing.”

Roedner noted that caps of $500 and $1,000 could have been put in the agreement, “and neither side picked that to do. … We elected to put in the amount that we were actually going to contribute.”

The town “didn’t change anything; the (insurance) carrier did,” Selectman Bill Thompson noted. “Your grievance is with them, not us.”

“You’re the one who carries the insurance,” Gilley responded. “You’re the one that represents the members.”

He said after the meeting that he was not surprised by the outcome. “We have a contract, and that’s what you negotiate a contract for,” he added. “We know what was said during negotiations.”

Negotiations are underway for a new three-year contract. Since talks are likely to continue past July 1, the current contract will apply until the 2019-2022 pact is in place, Roedner said.