Town swamped by unresolved union contracts
Updated 7:32 am, Wednesday, April 18, 2012
The date of June 30, 2010, marked more than just the end of a fiscal year. On that day, all seven of the town's contracts with the unions representing municipal employees expired.
Almost two years later, five employee contracts are still unresolved and the contract with the firefighters' union that was thought to be settled recently still has not been signed because of a dispute between the bargaining unit and the town's labor counsel over when the terms become effective -- now or retroactively.
As the labor-management negotiation process drags on, some local officials are questioning the wisdom of having all the contracts expire at once. There are 94 employees in the firefighters' union and 88 in Town Hall Employees Association. The police union has 101 members; public works has 81. The Emergency Communication Center union has 13 members; 38 employees are in the professional and technical union, and 33 members belong to the public health nurses' union.
But Kenneth Flatto, who was first selectman at the time all of the pacts expired, said that wasn't the goal.
"It wasn't the plan per se; it happened about seven or eight years ago," Flatto said. There were three union contracts expiring in one year, and four the next year. "As we were negotiating, several of the unions requested to add a year to their contract," he said.
Flatto said officials agreed to give three of the unions a four-year pact because the low rate of inflation made it possible for the town to negotiate lower wage increases. "We figured the longer out we could extend the contracts, we could lock into another year of low wage increases," he said.
That strategy, he said, resulted in all seven expiring the same year, but Flatto said he did not expect it to take so long to renegotiate new agreements.
"The downside is some groups will be willing to talk more quickly than others," he said, and some unions wanted to wait until contracts covering larger memberships, like the firefighters' union and the Town Hall Employees Association, were done to see what those groups got, or gave up, at the bargaining table. "I was pushing to get them all done in 2010 and 2011. It's frustrating because some of the unions were slow, and then contracts were turned down by the RTM."
Representative Town Meeting members have made it clear they want the town to start requiring that newly hired employees be given a defined contribution plan, similar to a 401(k), rather than a defined benefit, or pension, plan. They turned down both the Town Hall workers' and the firefighters' contracts during the first go-around for that reason.
According to town Fiscal Officer Paul Hiller there are other costs associated with a 401(k)-type plan, particularly where the police and fire unions are concerned. For example, he said, neither group pays into or receives Social Security right now. Their pensions are calculated using their base salaries and does not include any overtime or outside duty pay. With a defined contribution plan, that would change, Hiller said, and Social Security would have to be paid not only on base salaries, but also overtime or outside duty earnings.
While municipal employees continue to work without a contract, all benefits that they received under the prior contract remain in effect. For example, under most of the contracts, employees have been paying $31 a week for health insurance premiums, according to Human Resources Director Mary Carroll-Mirylees. For THEA employees, that changed with the new contract; they now pay 10 percent of a blended rate cost. If a contract calls for step increases in pay, those increases will continue to be paid under terms of the old, existing contract.
First Selectman Michael Tetreau said, "I think it's probably financially more balanced if you don't have (all union contracts) all expire in the same year ... That's what creates large legal bills."
On the firefighters' contract alone, the town has spent $53,000 so far on lawyer costs.
Tetreau said his goal is to try to stagger the expiration dates for contracts in the future.
"We're trying to negotiate different length contracts," he said, "whether that's two, three or four years so that instead of seven contracts in one year, you have two or three. The idea would be to create a little more balance year to year."
The first selectman said labor counsel must be brought in to work with each bargaining unit. "You have to start setting meeting dates and find dates that fit into everyone's schedule," Tetreau said. "Unless you have six different attorneys, it's going to have to be spread out."
Tetreau also said he's trying to change the town's style of negotiation to a more formal process than has been used in the past.
He said he doesn't think a recent hitch in the agreement with the firefighters' union will affect any of the contracts that remain outstanding. The firefighters contend their latest pact was to take effect on the date it was signed -- which it still has not been -- while the town has said the terms should be retroactive to 2010. Because of the retroactive application, some firefighters will owe money to the town for sick days already taken. The union's prior contract called for 30 sick days, the new pact cuts it to 12. In some cases, the money owed the town is over $3,000 per firefighter.
"I don't think it's the right approach to get into contract specifics in public," Tetreau said when asked about the dispute over the fire pact. The firefighters' union "definitely raised some concerns and we're going to clarify these and work on bringing it to a resolution."
Each union's contract is unique, Tetreau said, "based on the issues and the negotiations."
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