The Mabel City Council voted unanimously to apply for union membership to have access to more affordable health coverage during its meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 9.

The topic was discussed as City Clerk Karen Larson brought three different proposals to the board regarding health insurance for the city employees.

Proposal one would be to continue the city's current health care plan with the city paying 80 percent of the coverage and employees paying 20 percent. However, the premium will be going up 2.5 percent in 2014.

Proposal two would eliminate the city sponsored Heath Savings Account (HSA) and have the city paying 90 percent of the health insurance premium with employees paying only 10 percent - saving the city an estimated $3,700 per year.

Proposal three would involve applying for membership in a union, the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 49 in Minnesota, North and South Dakota.

Larson indicated that other city employees in southeast Minnesota have joined, including Byron, Caledonia, Rochester and Stewartville. It was noted Fillmore County and Houston County also offer insurance through this union.

She said the coverage would be a significant improvement for the employees - offering a $250 deductible, dental insurance and limited vision.

"It's more coverage for less," Larson said.

Because the union does not offer insurance for "administrative positions," Larson, as clerk, does not qualify for this policy. She sought out quotes for an individual policy for herself with similar benefits. She explained the city could not directly pay for the policy, but she could pay for it and the city could reimburse her for those costs, which would be slightly over $1,000 a month.

Even with those costs, this option would save the city about $14,000 a year.

"We showed this to the insurance agent and he said it was good.... I know the word 'union' scares people, and that's why we looked into this," Larson said. "But it is a smaller union - and I talked to the city administer in Caledonia and he said (it was the) 'best thing we ever did.'"

The employees, Bob Mierau, Chuck Dahl and Nathan Manning, have all agreed they would like to pursue the third option. Mierau did request that the city return to paying 100 percent of the premium because the savings would be significant to the city. The employees will also have to pay individual dues of $15 a paycheck to belong to the union.

"When you hear the world 'union' you think - this is a bad thing - it's this side against that side," said council member Terry Torkelson. "That is not the issue at all."

The council voted unanimously to petition for the union membership and benefits. If the city is denied, the council will then look at option two. The city also agreed to pay 100 percent of the premiums at this time, but would revisit that option if costs increase in the future.

Larson also shared that the union's insurance premiums have not experienced an increase in five years.

"By saying that you would want to pursue this does not mean they (the union) would accept us - we have to ask them, send a letter in, and ask to join," Larson said.

"It does look like a win-win for all of you," said council member Kirsten Wyffels.

City holidays

The council also discussed paid holidays for city employees. Larson said this is necessary because established holidays are needed if the city would join the union. Along with the regular established holidays, there are two optional holidays the city offices can be closed- including Columbus Day and the day after Thanksgiving.

"I personally like the way the other towns have it - of having the day after Thanksgiving closed," Larson said.

"If we are going to do any holiday at all - there is more benefit to that Friday (day after Thanksgiving) to the employees," said council member Kristen Wyfulls.

The council voted unanimously to make the day after Thanksgiving a paid holiday for city employees.

The council also discussed, on a related matter, early closings for Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. Larson explained she would like to close the office at noon on Christmas Eve to allow for employees to attend church or prepare for family gatherings. While doing the same could be an option for New Year's Eve, she didn't feel as if that was as important. Plus, due to it being the end of the year, Larson said it may not be possible for her to leave early anyway.

The council agreed to close early on Christmas Eve, but to have normal hours on New Year's Eve.