Labor agreements are part of budget process, city negotiates six contracts that cover bulk of employees
The city has six collective bargaining agreements that cover about 75 percent of the city’s workforce.
The city has about 589 employees with 11 open positions currently and about another 158 seasonal or short-term positions, according to the city human resources department’s data from last week.
Earlier this year, the City Commission approved a two-year labor agreement with the Montana Public Employees’ Association, Inc. that covered accounting technicians, administrative secretaries, animal control officers, box office specialists, building inspectors, code enforcement, court clerk, emergency services dispatchers, housing specialist, library clerk, police evidence technician, utility dispatcher, among others.
Last summer, commissioners approved labor agreements with the International Association of Firefighters, Local 8, as well as the Police Protective Association.
Those agreements included changes to the city’s health insurance plans, raises for some and created a new rank in the fire department and longevity pay for others.
Labor agreements are negotiated by a city team including legal, finance, human resources, the city manager and the appropriate department heads with the labor representatives.
City Manager Greg Doyon said that some labor agreements involve multiple groups.
In the case of the Crafts Council Employees, the agreement includes multiple unions: Construction and General Laborers, Operating Engineers, International Association of Machinists, Teamsters and Carpenters, each of which has their own labor representative.
That agreement was approved in June 2016 and expires this summer. The agreement gave employees a 50 cent per hour increase for each year of the contract, which equated to $282,880.
Adjustments to labor agreements impact the city budget and “we track what we negotiate,” Doyon said. “We don’t have a bottomless pocket.”
Staff doesn’t typically go to the City Commission for direction on pay ranges before negotiating labor agreements, but make estimates and a range to use going into the budget year. If they’re off on their estimate, they can recoup the cost through vacancy savings or do a budget adjustment, but Doyon said he couldn’t remember that happening in his time here.
The city attempts to stagger the agreements to avoid negotiating all six at once, Doyon said, but that doesn’t always work.
In addition to the crafts agreement, this summer brings the expiration of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Plumbers and Fitters. The other three agreements expire in 2019.
“We spend a lot of time on employee issues,” Doyon said and hours are spent on negotiating each contract.
Labor agreements can include major changes beyond wages, vacation time and benefits.
An agreement with the fire union included a change to a 24-hour shift structure that was initially a pilot, but has since been maintained since it’s working, according to Doyon and fire officials.
Labor representatives from the different groups track the contracts that the city has approved. Those representatives and the city staff look to develop agreements that are fair, equitable and competitive, Doyon said.
“They know what each other is getting,” Doyon said. “They have to be realistic too.”
They try to keep parity among the agreements on things like health insurance, Doyon said, but there are differences among them. Some have pensions versus the state retirement plan, Doyon said.
Great Falls is the third largest city in Montana and wages offered by the city generally fall in the low to middle range compared to other Montana and regional cities.
Labor representatives and city staff use market information in an attempt to offer competitive compensation packages, which influences recruitment and retention, Doyon said.
Bob Funk of the Montana AFL-CIO said that labor agreements are part of developing municipal budgets, which is a benefit to the city and residents.
“Public sector unions enable city and state governments to better plan their budgets, because the government has a consistent bargaining partner, which brings a level of predictability and stability to city budget planning,” Funk told The Electric. “Public servants are the people who keep the wheels of our democracy turning. They provide essential services that ensure the public’s safety, security and well-being. Unfortunately, they are also usually the last people to experience the economic benefits of their tireless work. Every employee, regardless of where they work, should have the right to be heard in the work place and public sector unions ensure that right.”
Considering market information requires some discernment though, Doyon said.
For example, Bozeman isn’t typically a great comparison, Doyon said, because the cost of living is so much higher there.
When cities have longtime employees who aren’t receiving competitive pay and retire, cities often have to reevaluate the pay grade because it wasn’t market competitive, which affects recruitment efforts, Doyon said.
Bozeman does a wage study every two years, Doyon said, but the danger of that is getting the information back and realizing you’re way off the mark when it comes to offering competitive wages.
“It’s always a struggle to make adjustments,” Doyon said.
Police and fire departments each use a testing consortium so the information related to wages, benefits, recruiting and retention are more robust.
When the city was recovering from the Electric City Power deal that lost millions for the city, Doyon said there was little in the way of wage increases for employees and the city instead covered most of the increases for health insurance premiums.
Over the last few years, the city has been adjusting their health insurance offerings and shifting to a straight 90/10 split, in which the city pays 90 percent of the premium and the employee pays 10 percent.
“I don’t think anybody can beat the city’s medical plan,” Doyon said. “It’s very robust.”
That’s a major recruiting tool for hiring high quality staff, Gaye McInerney, told City Commissioners during their “State of the City” work session on Feb. 9.
About a quarter of city employees are non-union or exempt. Those are mostly department heads and administrators.
One of the challenges is ensuring the pay grids stay balanced and fair, Doyon said. If a labor agreement bumps employee pay to something close to or more than higher level jobs, the city has to make adjustments to those pay scales as well.
McInerney has been tasked with making adjustments to that process and developing a more efficient way to manage those wage structures, Doyon said.
Department heads are salaried and Doyon is the only employee on a contract, which is approved by the commission.