On May 20, 2010, a New Jersey judge ruled that a new law requiring public employees to pay at least 1.5 percent of their salaries toward health insurance can go into effect on May 21, 2010.

As reported in the Asbury Park Press, unions for police and firefighters asked the Superior Court for a temporary restraining order that would have kept the law from taking effect in certain situations. The request was part of a larger lawsuit that seeks to block the new law, which is part of the State’s efforts to hold down costs by being tougher on public employees and their unions, including those working for local government.

The new law, championed by Governor Chris Christie, requires the contributions of employees once their current collective bargaining agreements expire. Many public employees already contribute at least 1.5 percent of their salaries to health coverage. Other locals have chosen smaller pay raises to keep free health care, or have switched to inferior insurance coverage to keep it free. 

The unions’ main contention was that the amount employees pay for their health insurance should be worked out in contract negotiations, not imposed by the State. According to the judge, “not every term and condition on which a collective bargaining unit would want to negotiate is fair play.” The judge also rejected the unions’ arguments that the law amounts to an unfair tax on the State’s roughly 400,000 public employees or that the law is vague.

The unions will get another chance to make their case in court later. While the unions ultimately hope to stop the law from being enforced entirely, the main concern in this case was narrow. Police and firefighters are prohibited by state law from going on strike. When their contract negotiations reach an impasse, they go to a lengthy arbitration process. In essence, the unions argued the 1.5 percent payment requirement should not apply to the 215 local unions currently in the arbitration process.

Please continue to check this blog periodically for updates regarding this litigation.