Chief negotiator for the City of San Antonio Jeff Londa.
Attorney Jeff Londa is the chief negotiator for the City of San Antonio in contract talks with the firefighters union. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

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.
Members representing the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association prepare to convene. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

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.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org