After two weeks of witness testimony and data analysis, attorneys representing the City of San Antonio and the local firefighters union rested their cases Monday.
A panel of arbitrators, who have near-full authority over the union’s next labor contract with the City, will likely reach an agreement in mid-January 2020, officials said.
Health care and base pay increases remain the stickiest points of contention throughout the on-again-off-again talks. The union’s most recent contract expired in Sept. 2014, but an “evergreen clause” keeps most of the terms in place for another decade.
The City wants to reign in the swelling health care costs it incurs each year as firefighters and their dependents enjoy premium-free plans. The union’s proposal would have them paying a flat monthly premium while the City proposes two new health care options similar to what the police union agreed to in 2016.
The two sides remain miles apart on contract length. The City wants a 2.5-year deal while the fire union wants one year; the City wants a 3 percent of base pay signing bonus while the fire union wants a 14 percent base pay increase in addition to a more than $7,000 signing bonus.
The City already pays $260 million under the current fire union contract and its new proposal would add an estimated $3 million to that total. The union’s proposal would cost an additional $42 million.
Retired Judge John J. Specia Jr., who serves as chair of the arbitration panel, asked each side to consider a longer contract term during previous meetings.
“You need a period of time to rebuild [your] relationship, rebuild trust,” Specia said.
The City spent Monday rebutting testimony heard last week from fire union witnesses regarding the alleged mismanagement of the worker’s compensation process. That process, related to injuries or illness employees sustain while performing their job, is not currently covered by the union’s contract as it is mandated by State law.
In response to this claim, City Manager Erik Walsh said he directed San Antonio Fire Department to create a new captain position that would assist uniformed employees within the department on their worker’s comp claims.
For the first time in San Antonio’s history, a panel of arbitrators will have complete discretion for how long it will take to finalize the terms. In the past, contracts have been decided through a collective bargaining process and ultimately voted on by City Council.
Documents from both the City and union are confidential, as requested by the panel, so the exact wording of the current proposals is unknown.