Evers signs law that enshrines limited health care bargaining rights for police, firefighters

By: - October 26, 2023 5:15 am
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Police officers and firefighters have received a guarantee that their union contract negotiations can include how much they must pay for health care coverage and who gets covered under legislation that Gov. Tony Evers signed Wednesday.

The new law overrides a state labor commission opinion that local governments had no obligation to offer health care coverage at all for public safety employees. It is an exception in the last decade for bolstering union rights in Wisconsin rather than cutting them back.

In announcing that he had signed the bill, SB-120, into law, Evers’ office said it “[r]olls back anti-union collective bargaining prohibitions enacted by 2011 Wisconsin Acts 10 and 32 to allow municipal public safety employees, such as police officers, fire fighters, and emergency medical service providers, to bargain with a municipal employer about who will be covered by a healthcare plan…”

Republican sponsors of the bill, however, have said it doesn’t repeal anything, but simply clarifies what lawmakers had intended all along under other legislation.

Act 10 stripped most union rights from public employees, including the right to bargain about anything relating to health care or other benefits. Act 10 exempted specific public safety employees — municipal police and firefighters — who retained collective bargaining rights that the rest of Wisconsin’s state and local government workers lost.

Later, language in the 2011 and 2013 state budgets limited what police and fire unions could negotiate regarding health coverage to how much employees must pay toward coverage, not the health care plan’s design or its provider.

When the city of Racine proposed eliminating city-paid health coverage for retired police and firefighters, the city sought a ruling from the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC). In the summer of 2022, the agency issued an opinion declaring the city had “discretion whether it will even have a health insurance plan for public safety employees.”

SB-120 and its Assembly companion measure (AB-120) were drafted to throw out that ruling.

The employment relations commission “was incorrect in their interpretation of the law,” Sen. Van Wanggaard testified at a public hearing in March.

According to Wanggaard and other authors of the legislation, the 2011 and 2013 budget bills, along with a 2019 law, show that lawmakers never intended to deny health coverage to police or firefighters. The 2019 law guarantees that public employers will continue paying for health coverage for survivors of public safety employees who die in the line of duty.

“Why would the Legislature allow for negotiations of health coverage premiums if there were to be no health care coverage?” Wanggaard testified. “Why would the Legislature unanimously ensure the families of fallen firefighters and police officers maintain their health insurance if they were not eligible to have health insurance in the first place? Simply put, they wouldn’t.”

In their memo seeking co-sponsors the legislation’s authors, Wanggaard, Sen. Robert Wirch (D-Somers) and Rep. Bob Donovan (R-Greenfield), wrote that the bill “clarifies the existing statute” to specify that the “existence of health care coverage, and who is covered by that coverage, is subject to bargaining between a municipality and public safety employees.”

“The bill is a simple restatement of existing law,” Wanggaard testified.

Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee), one of a number of Democrats who signed on to the legislation, told the Wisconsin Examiner on Wednesday that while other public employee groups should get back their right to bargain about health care — and Democrats have sponsored legislation to repeal Act 10 — “other unions were in support of this” new law, not only those representing police and firefighters. “This is a separate issue from Act 10,” she said.

SB-120 passed both the Senate and the Assembly on voice votes, with no dissenting votes recorded. Nevertheless, Rep. Ryan Clancy (D-Milwaukee), told the Wisconsin Examiner on Wednesday that he opposed the measure because it didn’t help all public employees equally.

“It strikes me as an effort to divide and conquer and separate out some groups of public employees from others, just like Act 10 did,” Clancy said.


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.