Wisconsin Municipalities Required To Offer Health Insurance And Bargain Over Contributions

The state of Wisconsin maintains a public sector collective bargaining law. The Wisconsin law is called the Municipal Employee Relations Act (MERA) and was historically interpreted to impose a duty to bargain over health insurance plans offered by municipalities to their employees. In 2011, the Wisconsin legislative and executive branches drastically curbed public sector collective bargaining rights. While the legislature initially spared the collective bargaining rights of public safety employees, later that year it passed a law removing public safety employees’ right to bargain over health insurance plan design and the impact of plan design on employee compensation.

Two years later, the legislature amended MERA, imposing further limitations on the collective bargaining rights of public safety employees. The statutory lan­guage prohibited bargaining over “all costs and payments associated with health care coverage plans and the design and selection of health care coverage plans and the impact of such costs and payments and the design and selection of the health care coverage plans on the wages, hours, and conditions of employment.” Critically, MERA continued to permit bargaining over employee premium contributions.

In 2021, the City of Racine petitioned the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) to decide whether it was obligated to bargain over em­ployee premium contributions if it chose not to offer a health insurance plan to its employees in the first place. WERC decided that under MERA, the City was free to avoid bargaining over this issue by simply refusing to offer health insurance coverage to its police officers and firefighters. Several public safety unions appealed this decision in state court.

The Court vacated WERC’s decision, finding that it led to an absurd result. The Court reasoned that MERA’s continued grant of collective bargaining rights over healthcare contributions would be rendered meaningless if employers could simply refuse to offer health insurance. “Public safety workers must have the right to bargain on this issue and employers are prohibited from refusing to bargain as to it. This right is only meaningful under all circumstances if municipal employers are required to offer a health care coverage plan.”

The Court also analyzed the way MERA was drafted and organized and noted that MERA generally grants collective bargaining rights subject to many enumerated prohibitions. It found this structure significant, as the legislature could have – but chose not to – prohibit all collective bargaining subject to enumerated exceptions. “The clear intent of the way in which the Legislature wrote these statutes is that the rights provided to employees to collective­ly bargain are only limited as expressly stated. That the statute preserves the right to bargain over health plan premium contributions and prohibits employers from refusing to bargain as to this subject means employers must offer some form of health care coverage.”

The court noted that the Wisconsin legislature passed three recent laws lim­iting public sector collective bargaining rights: “When the Legislature wanted to whittle down the bundle of rights public safety employees held relating to bargain­ing regarding health care coverage, it did so explicitly. When it eliminated all rights except the right to bargain over premium contribution, that enumerated preserva­tion of this final straw in the bundle of rights must be given meaning. Had the Legislature wanted to allow a municipal employer to not offer a plan at all, it knew how to say so.”

Wisconsin Professional Police Associ­ation v. Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, Case Number 22CV1674, 2023 WL 7924647 (Wis. Cir. Ct.).

This article appears in the March 2024 issue of our monthly newsletter, Public Safety Labor News.

Also in the March 2024 issue:

  • University Police Department Facing First Amendment Retaliation Claim
  • On-Duty Officer Not Liable For K-9 Dog Bite During Vet Visit
  • ‘Workers’ Comp Bar’ Prevents Firefighter’s Suit Against Employer
  • Preexisting Condition Does Not Bar Disability Claim For COVID-Related Heart Attack
  • Court Upholds Arbitration Award Reinstating Genital-Grabbing State Trooper
  • Officer Was Properly Denied Disability Benefits, Post-Conviction Relief After Termination
  • City Violated CBA By Terminating Healthcare Coverage For Surviving Spouse
  • Employer Lawfully Limited Standby Pay To Certain Units
  • City Properly Deducted Fees From Police Wages
  • Racial Discrimination Claim Fails After Court Finds No Injury Or Harm To Officer

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