During its 11th meeting with the firefighters union, the City of San Antonio took a $10 million step toward the firefighters union Tuesday, but the two sides’ labor contract proposals remain roughly $68 million apart.

The city is still working on more precise cost estimates of the union's latest proposal, but the bulk of that difference is due to wages.

After a nearly two-month pause, contract negotiations picked up again this week with the city budging slightly on wages, but maintaining its proposal that would effectively reduce overtime compensation for the fire union's roughly 1,800 members. There were several tense exchanges involving the latter issue, but negotiators left the meeting with some optimism.

“As happens in the course of any negotiations, there are periods of time where we are less optimistic than others,” said attorney Richard Poulson, lead negotiator for the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association. “I think that we are back on the optimistic track.”

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Deputy City Manager María Villagómez, the city's lead negotiator, acknowledged that “we have definitely made progress yesterday and today, however, we remain far apart on wages.”

The city's goal is to have at least a tentative agreement with the union by the end of July, before City Council's annual budget talks begin in August and an expected vote in September. In May, the city anticipated having to make significant cuts to the fiscal year 2025 budget. Officials want to avoid having an unknown, multimillion-dollar public safety contract loom over that process.

On Tuesday, the city proposed a 1% increase — moving from a proposed 4% raise to a 5% raise — for firefighters and paramedics in 2025. The city also proposed increasing annual uniform allowance from $500 to $600.

That brings the city's estimated total cost of its three-year proposal to $81.8 million — a jump from the $72.4 million package proposed on Monday. For comparison, under the city's original five-year proposal, the first three years would have cost the city $62.3 million.

Meanwhile, the union's initial three-year proposal would have cost the city about $200 million, and its latest proposal reduced the cost by more than $50 million, the union estimated.

On Tuesday, union leaders also bristled at the city's proposed change to a longstanding overtime policy that would result in fewer hours during which firefighters get paid time and a half.

“You want our firefighters and paramedics, who are already overworked, to work additional shifts for free?” Jones asked Villagómez during the session.

“No,” Villagómez said.

Firefighters have a 56-hour week, with three hours automatically counted as overtime. Currently, paid time off that a firefighter uses for sick leave or vacation during that week is counted toward overtime. The city wants to stop that practice as it has led to additional overtime costs, Villagómez said.

“Just like any other civilian [city] employee, or any other employee at USAA or H-E-B, you have to physically work your hours and then be eligible for that overtime,” she told reporters after the session. “So we're not asking them to work for free.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires overtime payments for certain employees, so Jones suggested that negotiators consult an FLSA expert “so that both sides can comprehend what exactly is being proposed and what the expectations would be.”

The city proposes using the savings from that policy, about $3.6 million, toward a 1.6% base pay increase for fire union members in October.

“The overtime proposal for the city is essentially us subsidizing our own raises,” Jones said, adding that he received several messages about the city's overtime proposal from members who tuned in to the negotiations online. “The feedback was not encouraging on that proposal.”

In their proposals, the sides have agreed to shift $2,400 in current incentive and uniform pay over to base pay. The city proposes annual raises of 7% in 2024, 5% in 2025, and 3.5% in 2026. The union wants raises of 11%, 9%, and 7% respectively, saying those pay levels will help retain and attract talent.

Richard Poulson (right), attorney and chief negotiator for the fire union, speaks during the 11th meeting for labor contract negotiations between the City of San Antonio and fire union at the Municipal Plaza Building Tuesday.
Richard Poulson (right), attorney and chief negotiator for the fire union, speaks during the 11th meeting for labor contract negotiations between the City of San Antonio and fire union at the Municipal Plaza Building Tuesday. Credit: Bria Woods / ISF FORUM

A history of ‘poor leadership'

The union represents a vast majority of SAFD’s roughly 1,800 firefighters and paramedics and, like the police union, has significant political sway historically.

The last path to a contract involved lawsuits, court-ordered mediation, dramatic press conferences and a fierce proposition election initiated by the union that ultimately led to then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s retirement.

Through the 2018 election, the union successfully limited the pay and tenure of city managers to eight years and won the right to call for binding arbitration in its contract negotiations — which the union ultimately used to arrive at the current contract adopted in 2020.

The firefighters’ current contract, finalized by a panel of arbitrators rather than votes by union membership and city council, expires on Dec. 31. That contract favored the city financially, Jones said, and inflation has since outpaced pay increases.

The union's push for arbitration “was [a] bad strategy, and it was poor leadership,” Jones said. It's been about 15 years since the union membership has voted on a labor contract.

“Negotiations, in an open room and open format like this, I feel is healthy,” he said.

If a deal isn’t reached before expiration, a five-year evergreen clause keeps most of the current contract terms, including annual increases to health care premiums, in place.

Negotiation sessions, which are open to the public and streamed online started in February.

After several bargaining sessions, negotiators got stuck on total take-home pay for firefighters and paramedics. On May 3, the city proposed bringing in a mediator to help reach a non-binding agreement — something the union considered. The cautious optimism they held at the start of the process seemed to wane, but both sides said they still wanted to avoid another drawn-out, dramatic process.

But days later, a “Block of Five” council members organized a press conference to call for more transparency within the bargaining process and air grievances against City Attorney Andy Segovia. That block ultimately got what they asked for: two private, full council briefings during which they reviewed Segovia's performance and the current state of negotiations with the fire union.

Bargaining sessions didn't start up again until this week, more than a month after council's private meeting, but the city has conceded on the length of the contract from five years to three, and budged slightly on wage increases.

Complicating matters further, voters in November might be asked to undo salary and tenure caps on the city manager position that nearly 60% of voters added to the city charter in 2018. That measure was initiated by the fire union and aimed at Sculley at the time.

Voters might also be asked to increase council members' and the mayor's pay.

It’s unclear if issues at the bargaining table will inspire the union to again wade into a charter election.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the ISF FORUM's...