Thursday, June 18, 2015

PERB Tackles Vested Rights Issues in Finding Unions Refused to Bargain Over Employee Pension Contributions

On June 3, 2015 in County of San Luis Obispo (2015) PERB Decision No. 2427-M, PERB held two unions unlawfully refused to bargain over employee pension contributions. In reaching this decision, PERB ruled San Luis Obispo's independent retirement system did not provide employees with vested rights for employee contributions. This case demonstrates PERB's willingness to decide vested rights issues, potentially providing labor organizations with an alternative forum to litigate such issues.

The County of San Luis Obispo maintains the San Luis Obispo Pension Trust ("Trust") as its own independent retirement system. The County requested to bargain with two unions over a proposed increase in employee contributions to the retirement system. The unions argued, among other things, that the employee contributions constituted vested contractual rights and the unions could not lawfully bargain over such vested rights. During this time, the unions were litigating cases in superior court over similar issues. If the unions agreed to bargain over employee contribution rates, they risked weakening their position in the pending superior court litigation.

The outcome of the case hinged on whether the Trust provided vested rights regarding certain employee contribution rates. If PERB determined the pension benefits were vested at the current employee contribution rates, the unions would have been within their rights to refuse to bargain over proposed increased contributions for the same fixed level of pension benefit. However, PERB held the current employee contribution rates were not vested and immutable under the Trust's governing documents. PERB determined the Trust's language did not show a clear intent to create vested rights in particular contribution rates or benefits. Since the employee contributions were negotiable, PERB ruled the unions unlawfully refused to bargain over the County's proposed changes to the contribution rates.

This case demonstrates PERB's willingness to decide vested rights issues in determining whether a refusal to negotiate pension benefits constitutes an unfair labor practice. Although the County prevailed under the circumstances in County of San Luis Obispo, this case could benefit labor organizations in the future by providing an administrative forum with labor expertise to determine vested rights issues. This decision also shows the danger for labor organizations and employers to refuse to negotiate over proposals where bargaining obligations are unclear.