One-year deal with firefighters union includes $95M in back pay

The agreement, which still must be ratified, also maintains treasured union perks and outdated staffing requirements costing taxpayers millions.

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The city has reached a one-year deal with its firefighters union.

Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has cut a one-year deal with the Chicago Firefighters Union that includes $95 million in back pay but would nearly double employee health care contributions.

One union official said rank-and-file members are “not happy” about the hike in health care costs, though the contract also maintains treasured union perks and outdated staffing requirements that cost taxpayers millions.

However, the mayor’s office said the higher health care contributions by employees would save taxpayers roughly $7 million a year. Active members will have to pay an additional 1.5% of their salaries towards health care costs. The deal also raises the salary cap for those contributions to $115,000. 

Firefighters and paramedics would continue to be eligible for retiree health care at age 55. But, the new deal would require future retirees between 55 and 60 to contribute 3% toward their health care costs. Those between 60 and 62 would contribute 1.5% of their retirement annuity toward their benefit.

The deal still must be ratified. The current contract expired June 30, 2017. The new agreement runs through June 30, 2021. It includes a 10% pay raise with all but 2.5% of it retroactive.

“The men and women of the Chicago Fire Department have been on the front lines of a crisis that is entirely without precedent in our city,” Lightfoot said in a statement issued by her office.

The new contact, the mayor said, will “ensure that our first responders receive the fair wages and benefits they deserve while still being judicious with taxpayer resources.”

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel had been close to a new firefighters’ contract that would have traded health insurance concessions for a reduction in daily “variances” from the minimum manning requirement that triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.

That rule requires every piece of fire apparatus to be staffed by at least five employees.

But time ran out on Emanuel’s second term before the deal got done.

Lightfoot has talked internally about seeking some of those same concessions, but settled for only one major one — higher employee and retiree contributions toward the rising cost of health care.

“Rank and file not happy. Health care costs [nearly] doubled,” Rob Tebbens, political director for the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, wrote in a text message to the Sun-Times.

“Active member, single coverage making $115,000 will see a 175 percent increase while teachers are frozen and only increase modestly. Mayor promised more ambulances in media, but didn’t deliver.”

Veteran paramedic Pat Fitzmaurice was even more disappointed in Lightfoot, who benefited greatly when Local 2 endorsed her over County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

“She lied. She said more ambulances and we got no more ambulances,” Fitzmaurice wrote in a text message.

“She said she needed to negotiate for more ambulances in the new contract, which was [also] a lie. Doesn’t need contract to add. Then, she told [former Channel 2 investigative reporter] Pam Zekman she was committed to more ambulances and we would get them. Another lie.”

Fitzmaurice noted the Chicago Fire Department’s emergency medical system is the “second-busiest” in the country.

“With 80 ambulances, it’s a disgrace,” he wrote.

Local 2 President Jim Tracy could not be reached for comment on the tentative agreement.

Lightfoot said she looks forward “to returning to the bargaining table soon to work in collaboration with Local 2 on operational reforms needed to modernize and continue the excellence of CFD.”

Kristen Cabanban, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Budget and Management, refused to say how the city would cover the $95 million cost of back pay at a time when the stay-at-home shutdown has already blown a $700 million hole in Lightfoot’s precariously-balanced, 2020 budget.

The union also won increases in vacation days, holiday and overtime pay and promotional concessions. Local 2 also won more divers and strict guarantees on distribution of personal protective equipment. The $50 penalty for failure to participate in the city’s wellness program would be waived.

It’s not surprising Lightfoot would cut a one-year deal with firefighters, instead of attempting to negotiate a longer deal that gets her through the 2023 mayoral election.

During a May 29 meeting in the mayor’s office just hours before downtown demonstrations devolved into looting and mayhem, Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara said Lightfoot told him she wanted to negotiate the retroactive pay portion of the police contract “right away and get that off the financial books” this summer.

“She said she was in a hole this year financially and expects a hole in the budget again next year. So it’s easier just to package it all together and, however she’s gonna get rid of it, get rid of it all at once and not have to worry about that big number down the road,” Catanazara said then.

Now, the FOP is the only city employee union without a contract.

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