Chicago Mayor Takes Aim At Firefighters’ Benefits During Contract Talks

CHICAGO, IL &#8211 For months, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has left the door open to closing fire stations as he tries to cut Chicago Fire Department costs during negotiations on a new union contract. It looks like the new mayor’s real target, however, is firefighters’ wallets.

The administration has taken aim at a slew of pay bumps that add thousands of dollars to firefighters’ salaries but also cost the city tens of millions a year. The extras are things like special holiday pay, a uniform allowance, a bonus for staying in shape and being available to come in on off days.

As contract talks continue, the tactic allows Emanuel to frame the debate as a push to end such practices in the Fire Department.

“You don’t want to actually attack firefighters, or police,” said Robert Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor & Employment Relations in Chicago. “But if you can make the case that you’re going after ‘unnecessary perks,’ you can hope to win public support.”

If they’re the kind of perks regular folks don’t get at work, well, firefighters argue that their jobs are anything but normal — they’re the ones who charge toward burning buildings and possess lifesaving skills.

Neither side will publicly discuss the particulars of the bargaining process. In a recent letter to union members titled “The Fight Is On!” Local 2 President Thomas Ryan laid out what he said was the city’s “horrendous” initial bargaining position. The contract changes Ryan said are in Emanuel’s cross hairs would together cut the Fire Department’s $510 million annual budget by about $24 million per year by eliminating certain types of compensation, and they would severely tighten the purse strings on other provisions that paid firefighters tens of millions of dollars more.

Mayoral spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said in a statement that “the city and Chicago Fire Department remain committed to retaining the highest level of protection for our residents at a cost that is affordable for taxpayers.”

The parts of the behind-the-scenes contract talks that have trickled out show the administration trying to strike a balance by making cuts to the department’s bottom line without appearing to undermine public safety. The city also dipped its toe into the controversial question of how many firefighters are needed at each station, calling for a cut in staffing at some of Chicago’s 96 firehouses. But most of the proposals would take money out of firefighters’ paychecks.

The administration suggests doing away with the uniform allowance, which pays firefighters more than $1,000 per year to cover the cost of cleaning their work clothing. That cost the city about $5.57 million last year.

Emanuel also wants to nix duty availability pay. That’s money for Fire Department personnel to be available to be called in to work by the city at any time, and it cost $14.9 million last year.

And the mayor would end the practice of paying firefighters for meeting fitness standards, as well as allowing them to trade unused furlough days for compensation if they’re leaving the department. Those two provisions cost the city $4.58 million in 2011.

Possibly Emanuel’s most inflammatory proposal comes on firehouse staffing, where Ryan said the mayor wants to lower from 10 to nine the number of fire personnel required to staff the city’s 57 “double houses” — those with both firetrucks and fire engines — in a given shift. The city could save about $17 million per year in salaries and pension benefits by reducing each of three shifts by 57 firefighters, based on Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s estimate that the average total annual compensation for a Chicago firefighter is $102,000.

Emanuel has his eye on changing staffing levels despite the fact the union’s current contract with the city stipulates that contentious topic will not be on the bargaining table again until 2014.

A manpower fight was at the heart of the 1980 Chicago Fire Department strike. Before he resigned this year, former Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff spoke out strongly against any staffing reduction as a safety hazard. Hoff’s replacement, Jose Santiago, has been more receptive to the possibility.

Bill Kugelman, former president of Local 2, warned against reading too much into the city’s early hard-line bargaining stance.

“He’s staking out a position,” Kugelman said of Emanuel. “This is pie-in-the-sky-type stuff.”

Kugelman is troubled by the city’s proposal to reduce the number of people on duty at the double houses, which make up more than half the city’s 96 firehouses.

“That’s the first line of defense,” he said. “Chicago’s not — I’m going to get in trouble for saying this — but it’s not Bensenville, Rolling Meadows, those types of things. Firefighters can’t do their jobs in Chicago with fewer people on these pieces of equipment.”

In addition to eliminating some types of pay bumps, the administration has proposed cutting costs elsewhere in the pact.

One change would sharply decrease the $16.7 million spent last year on “specialty pay” for firefighters who have skills like scuba diving or hazardous materials cleanup. Under the most recent contract, the city agreed to give fire union employees a flat 5 percent annual pay bump if they maintained certification in a special training. Firefighters jumped at the chance, with about 80 percent of the nearly 5,000 union members collecting specialty pay by the end of 2010.

Emanuel wants to change the next contract to stipulate that firefighters receive the stipend only for shifts on which they use the skills, Ryan’s letter says.

Another big-ticket cost on the table during negotiations is holiday pay. Currently, members of the union who work on any of 13 holidays get paid for those days at a higher rate than normal salary. So do those who would have worked the holidays but didn’t because they had department-required days off designed to hold down overtime costs. Last year’s tab for those payments was more than $19 million, according to city records. Emanuel wants to pay only those actually working the holidays.

And the city wants to tighten up significantly on the outside classes they will reimburse firefighters for taking. Local 2 members received $558,730 last year for educational courses the contract with the city said had to be “job-related or necessary for a degree.” Emanuel wants to reimburse only for taking classes in life-support or paramedic training.

The city also wants to do away with contractual pay increases for firefighters cross-trained as emergency medical technicians or paramedics, removing an incentive for firefighters to pursue those certifications.

The firefighters union cannot strike, which takes a lot of the urgency out of the looming Saturday contract expiration. Kugelman said the new deal probably will eventually be set by an independent arbitrator. That’s how the current pact between the city and the union got settled late in 2010, three years after the prior contract had lapsed.

From The Chicago Tribune.

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