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City Council OKs contract with firefighters; deal upgrades ambulance service

Chicago will get a dramatic upgrade in ambulance care — and firefighters will get $32 million in back pay — under a five-year contract approved Wednesday that opens the door to even higher pay raises.

The agreement ratified by the City Council guarantees 4,645 firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians an 11 percent pay raise over five years, but ends free health care for those who retire between the ages of 55 and 65. After Dec. 31, those retirees will be forced to contribute 2 percent of their annuities toward the cost of their health insurance until they’re eligible for Medicare.

All 15 of Chicago’s basic-life-support ambulances will be converted to advanced-life-support, giving Chicago 75 ambulances capable of administering the most sophisticated level of care.

The 11-percent pay raise is only a “floor.” If the Illinois General Assembly mandates a pension contribution higher than the current 9.12 percent, the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 can negotiate an even bigger pay raise.

Workforce Development Committee Chairman Pat O’Connor (40th) has acknowledged that the contract’s $80 million pricetag is almost certain to rise “if the state [pension] law changes—and we anticipate that it would.” But he rose on the City Council floor to praise Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 for coming to the bargaining table in good faith and avoiding the financial wildcard of interest arbitration, where the cost to Chicago taxpayers could have been even higher. O’Connor noted that it’s the first time in recent history that firefighters have settled their contract before Chicago Police officers.

The $32 million in back pay is already tucked away in the mayor’s 2014 budget and will not require additional borrowing. It must be paid within 75 days of next week’s final City Council vote.

The decision to end a two-tiered emergency medical system that paramedics have called a dismal failure follows investigations by Inspector General Joe Ferguson, WBBM-TV and the Better Government Association. All three concluded Chicago needs more advanced-life-support ambulances to consistently meet response-time standards.The 15 basic-life-support ambulances are expected to be converted to advanced in September.

“That will substantially enhance the kind of care people will get. We’ll have more advanced equipment. You’ll have paramedics who are better-trained. We’ll be able to give close to … trauma units on wheels,” Jim Franczek, the city’s chief labor negotiator, told aldermen last week.

The contract calls for the appointment of a six-member committee to study the need for even more ambulances. Franczek also revealed there’s a study already underway about the possibility of relocating existing ambulances. “You’ve always got to look at it: where you’re using them, what areas, how you can maximize it,” he said.

The pre-Medicare fee for retiree health care was one of the only givebacks Mayor Rahm Emanuel was able to wring out of Local 2. The mayor came up empty on his laundry list that took aim at treasured union perks such as holiday and duty-availability pay; clothing allowance; pay grades; premium pay; non-duty lay-up coverage; the physical fitness incentive; and the 7-percent premium paid to cross-trained firefighter-paramedics. Nor did the union agree to Emanuel’s plan to have “double houses” — stations that include both engines and trucks — to be staffed by nine firefighters instead of 10.

Instead, the mayor settled for what City Hall sources have called a “vanilla” agreement in hopes of creating a “collaborative atmosphere” that will set the stage to solve the city’s pension crisis. Next year, Chicago is required by state law to make a $600 million contribution to stabilize police and fire pension funds that now have assets to cover just 30 percent and 24 percent of their respective liabilities.

“We tried like heck, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to make a deal,” Franczek said last week, “We have had a good relationship with Local 2. We’ve negotiated this in good faith. We hope that kind of atmosphere continues in the pension discussions.”

Also on Wednesday, the City Council approved a new, four-year contract with police captains that guarantees those 29 captains an eight percent pay raise. Joe Martinico, the city’s chief in-house labor relations officer, disclosed last week that talks with the Fraternal Order of Police are moving along at a “good pace” and said he’s hopeful there will be an agreement some time this fall.

Email: fspielman@suntimes.com

Twitter: @fspielman



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