IMAGE: dennis pittsenbarger
Are utility workers some sort of protected class, or something?
Right under the Nose's nose, Portland-based NW Natural is trying to raise our residential gas bills. Is the requested 9 percent rate hike tied to jitters over Saddam's oil reserves? Nope. Is it the damn tree-huggers driving up NW Natural's costs? Not this time.
Rather, the privately held utility is faced with its employees' spiraling health-care costs--and wants ratepayers to pick up the tab.
"Health Insurance costs have been and continue to be one of the most rapidly increasing elements in the realm of consumer products and services," states a document the company gave the state Public Utility Commission in support of its recent request. And NW Natural has a union contract that requires it to pay the full cost of health insurance for its union members and their families. That amounts to $860 per month per employee, up from $691 last year.
Just last month, in fact, a vice-president at NW Natural spoke eloquently about the societal costs of rising health-care premiums--only he wasn't talking about his own company. Rather, he was taking issue with the Mercedes health plan we provide Portland teachers (a plan which, incidentally, runs $66 less than the monthly cost for gas-company union members). "The business community cares about schools," said Gregg Kantor, "but there is great concern about whether adding additional money would mean that the money would get to the classroom instead of spiraling benefits."
Meanwhile, NW Natural has asked for a rate hike so that it can, in its own words, provide employees with "a competitive medical benefit...to attract and retain a skilled, reliable work force."
The Nose wondered if the situations were identical--that is, whether asking the public to give more money to the Portland Public School District so that it can help pay for teachers' health insurance is the same as asking the public to give more money to Northwest Natural Gas so that it can help pay for utility workers' health insurance?
The Nose had one of his minions put the question to Kantor.
"It's not analogous," he replied. "The schools are in a crisis. Do we need more money to keep class sizes down or hand more money to health benefits? The gas company is not in a crisis."
So if NW Natural doesn't get its rate hike and can't pass the costs on to the public, how would it pay its workers' health insurance?
"We'd get it from shareholders," Kantor explained.
Well, now the Nose feels much better.