More than 8,000 Nebraska state employees would see the highest salary increases in more than 35 years under a tentative two-year contract agreement negotiated through their union. 

Under the agreement, union members would receive a 10%-27% raise, according to a news release from the Nebraska Association of Public Employees (NAPE).

NAPE Executive Director Justin Hubly said they are the highest salary increases state employees have received since the State Employees Collective Bargaining Act passed in 1987, which established the union's right to negotiate contracts with the state.

The contracts will not be solidified until a majority of union members vote to ratify them. Hubly said ratification meetings will be held through Jan. 26. Once ratified, the contracts will be effective from July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2025. 

Further details about the new contracts will not be revealed until they have been ratified, Hubly said. There were other benefits NAPE was aiming to secure in the contracts, but even before negotiations officially began, members made it clear that their biggest focus was pushing for wages that beat inflation.

"Wages were always going to be our top priority," Hubly said.

Other benefits listed as priorities for the new contracts were paid parental leave, access to remote work assignments, retirement insurance incentives, sick leave payout, bilingual premium pay and limits on mandatory overtime.

The negotiations came down to the wire. NAPE announced a tentative agreement had been reached Dec. 30, just one day before the deadline. 

In mid-December, Hubly said at a union news conference that the negotiations were progressing slowly, and claimed that incoming Gov. Jim Pillen entered the negotiations proposing that minimum salaries would be frozen for the entirety of the contracts. Pillen spokesman John Gage denied that.

Despite that, Hubly said he wasn't nervous about negotiations going past the Dec. 31 deadline. Only once in 35 years have contract negotiations surpassed their initial deadline, and both the union and Pillen's team expressed commitment to reach an agreement before that. 

Pillen, who's promoted himself as a fiscal conservative, previously promised to limit government spending. However, in addition to the salary increases, he recently proposed other major expenditures, such as establishing a $1 billion education fund that would eventually grow to $2.5 billion.

Pillen's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. He previously defended the education funding by describing it as an "investment" rather than "spending." Hubly said he saw the raises as an investment as well. 

State departments, like many other organizations across Nebraska, have been struggling to deal with staffing shortages for well more than a year. Hubly said the shortages have affected multiple services, including snow removal on state roads. Higher wages will help the state retain employees and hire more, he said.

Originally published on omaha.com, part of the BLOX Digital Content Exchange.

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