Delaware County's 300 prison guards are threatening a new year's strike unless the company that runs the jail improves a health-care proposal that union officials say would leave workers unable to clothe or feed their families.

"The crisis here is a health-care crisis," James Runckel, attorney for the correction officers' union, said Thursday.

"We are still very early on in the discussion," said Debra Shannon, executive vice president and general counsel for Community Education Center (CEC), the West Caldwell, N.J., company that has had a contract with the county to run the jail since 2009.

Neither Mario J. Civera Jr., chairman of the County Council, nor Prison Board Solicitor Robert DiOrio returned calls for comment.

The sides have been in negotiations since late October, when the guards voted to break from the International Union, Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America, and return to the Delaware County Prison Employees Independent Union.

Their health plan expires Dec. 31, and under the Affordable Care Act, CEC is required to offer health care beginning Jan. 1. The sides have met three times and plan to meet Friday.

The CEC offer includes premiums, deductibles, and out-of-pocket costs. Guards make between $30,000 and $35,000 annually, and they say family coverage could consume 90 percent or more of their salaries.

"We won't be able to move forward unless we get past the health insurance," union president Jabari Boddie said.

The offered plan complies with the law, Shannon said. A plan comparable to the old one, which was administered by their former union, is unavailable from CEC, she said.

"The union has been willing to enter into an interim agreement while we search the marketplace," Runckel said.

Runckel said that unlike guards at other county prisons who would be required to go to arbitration, the correctional officers at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility, in Thornbury Township, can strike because they are employed by a private company.

CEC oversees operations in five prisons in Texas and one in Ohio.

Shannon said the company hoped to avert a strike, but has a plan should one occur.

610-313-8111 @MariSchaefer