City Examines Fire Union’s Wage, Health Care Proposals To Weigh Contract Costs

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Chief negotiator for the City of San Antonio Jeff Londa.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Attorney Jeff Londa is the chief negotiator for the City of San Antonio in contract talks with the firefighters union.

Confusion arose Tuesday as negotiators for the City of San Antonio struggled to understand the firefighters union’s proposals regarding wage increases and health care costs. At one point, the union’s negotiation team seemed to signal different proposals.

The two sides are far from agreeing on most key elements of a deal that would end a more than four-year stalemate over a new labor contract for the City’s firefighters. Tuesday’s misunderstanding surrounded what was seemingly a proposed wage increase of unprecedented size in 2019 that would have pushed the two sides even further apart, but the matter was eventually clarified.

The episode illustrated the tensions and complexity of these negotiations, which have multimillion-dollar implications for the City, taxpayers, and firefighters.

As laid out last week, the union wants a roughly $50 million (10 percent) one-time signing bonus and 3.5 percent wage and health care coverage increases for its members that would compound over the five years of the proposed contract. On Tuesday morning, the union negotiating team said it wants that 10 percent lump sum to also be considered a wage increase, which would drastically increase the base pay and wage increases in subsequent years. 

“That’s more expensive than we had anticipated,” Deputy City Manager Maria Villagómez said during the sixth contract negotiation meeting since the two sides began face-to-face talks last month.

After a break, however, union negotiator Ricky J. Poole briskly explained that the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association was not asking for what would amount to a 13.5 percent raise in 2019, just a 3.5 percent raise that would be retroactive to the start of the fiscal year, Oct. 1, 2018.

“It was just a misunderstanding,” he said. “If we wanted [that], we would have asked for it originally.”

In total, the union has asked for 27.5 percent in wage increases over the life of the contract that includes back pay for the four years firefighters went without pay increases after their last contract expired in 2014. A portion of that $50 million bonus would go towards establishing a union-managed health care trust – taking management of the firefighters’ health care plan away from the City and likely giving control to an administrator overseen by a union board. 

The City proposed one-year contract with a 2 percent signing bonus and health care plans similar to what the police union agreed to in 2016 – though the police were able to negotiate much lower premiums than what it offered fire so far. 

“Our proposal is not that different than what police settled for,” said Jeff Londa, lead negotiator for the City. “There was never retroactivity in the police contract. … We’re very far apart.”

The City does not think the firefighters should receive any back pay because since their current contract expired in 2014, they have had a plush health care package. Most terms of the previous contract is kept in place with a 10-year evergreen clause.

The next negotiation sessions are scheduled for March 18 and 26. Although talks are tense, the negotiating teams are still cordial and crack jokes about donuts and fax machines between formal negotiation sessions, laugh in the halls, and shake hands at the beginning of most meetings.

Members representing the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association prepare to convene.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Members representing the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association prepare to convene.

Under the City’s proposal, which would require some firefighters to pay premiums for dependents for the first time (as some police officers do), the City would pay an estimated $16,799 for each of the City’s 1,739 firefighter in fiscal year 2020 if the new insurance takes effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

The union’s desire to carve out health care is rooted in fundamental mistrust of the City, Poole said, and other unions across the country have started doing so.

But Londa said the union hasn’t proved it can handle health care on its own and pointed to examples in other cities where such moves have failed.

A majority of the health care trusts Londa cited belonged to teachers unions, Poole said, which have different “demographics” than fire departments.

“With teachers, you’re dealing with a female population which is going to be having children, and then later on life are going to have significant health care concerns as compared to even their male counterparts,” Poole said during the meeting.

Firefighters are generally healthier than most civilians, he said, and so they should be easier to insure. “That makes a difference when you’re talking about the sustainability or viability of a health care plan,” Poole told reporters after the meeting.

Londa said that regardless of a union’s demographic makeup, health care experts should run health care funds.

The City provided several cost estimates for more than two dozen other contract changes proposed by the union, including overtime, holiday pay, vacation, and sick time. The most expensive was a proposal to prohibit probationary firefighters from counting towards the minimum four staff required on shift at a time.

The City is still running estimates for most of the proposed changes, but initial cost estimates so far are roughly $64 million. That number likely will change, Villagómez said.

“We will cost these things out ourselves,” Poole said.

It’s too soon to tell if these are acceptable changes for the City, Londa said, but $64 million is “just unrealistic” for so-called “non-economic” changes.

6 thoughts on “City Examines Fire Union’s Wage, Health Care Proposals To Weigh Contract Costs

  1. I would like to know exactly what Firefighters pay for their current health insurance policy, personally and for their dependents. What type of health insurance policy are they provided? What is range of their deductibles? And lastly, are firefighters provided this policy for their entire life and who pays?

    • Vivian. Everything is in the current contract. Google it. Also, thank you for wanting to do your own research. The Rivard website is obviously biased against the fire union.

  2. Firefighters are usually in good health until they retire. Many firefighters live only to their mid or late 50’s. This is attributed to their exposure to toxic smoke, asbestos and burning chemicals.
    Londa’s statement that only “healthcare experts” should handle healthcare funds is amusing. Most healthcare insurances are run by anything but healthcare professionals. Stingy bureaucrats are who run most healthcare insurances.
    By the way firefighters have a far more dangerous occupation than police. Thus the comparison isn’t valid.

  3. Well…, glad to read cordial relationship among negotiators. Anyway, 66% for Public Safety budget is too much money from General Budget. Let us see how long before Fire Union declares arbitration… will it apply to this CBA?

  4. “With teachers, you’re dealing with a female population which is going to be having children, and then later on life are going to have significant health care concerns as compared to even their male counterparts,” Poole said during the meeting.

    Firefighters are generally healthier than most civilians, he said, and so they should be easier to insure. “That makes a difference when you’re talking about the sustainability or viability of a health care plan,” Poole told reporters after the meeting.

    Mr. Poole, may I remind you that there are female firefighters and male teachers. The union is asking that taxpayers cover all health care costs for their entire families so the pregnancies and purported “significant health care concerns” as compared to males would still be payed be taxpayers and handled by the union managed healthcare trust. So how will the trust be more sustainable?

    Secondly, you claim that firefighters are generally healthier than civilians. What happened to the numerous job-related health hazards which were previous claimed to plague firefighters, justifying your claim for the need for 100 percent coverage.

    You can’t have your cake (100 percent healthcare coverage for firefighters and their dependents) and eat it too (union-managed healthcare trust). The administrative costs and responsibility for managing these healthcare costs should remain with the city.

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