NORWALK, Conn. — A small group of retired Norwalk firefighters made their presence known Tuesday as the Common Council worked to approve a new contract negotiated by the firefighters’ union.
“I am just wondering why the rules changed, to change our benefits now? Why couldn’t you just wait until we all die?” Michael Shannahan said at the beginning of the meeting. “…Nobody’s thinking about us, the retirees. It’s an election year, I hope you all remember that.”
Shannahan sat down with about 10 people, all of whom expressed objections to the new contract transitioning them to Connecticut Partnership 2.0, a state-run health care system.
“There’s 700 active (employees), 1,400-1500 retirees,” Director of Personnel and Labor Relations Ray Burney explained to the Council. “We’re talking about 2,000 people who are going to be moved into 2.0 on Jan. 1st. So, there’s a whole order of magnitude going on here. This is collective bargaining, not individual. There is no doubt in anybody’s assessment that it’s beneficial to the city and it’s beneficial to the employee population, active and retired, as a general proposition. There’s going to be one offs all the time when you are talking about 2,000 people and health benefits, there’s always going to be one offs. But collectively, it’s a good deal for the city and a good deal for the employees and retirees that are affected by it.”
City and Board of Education employees were asked to make the switch during this year’s budget cycle to save the city money.
It’s not the first time the retirees’ health insurance carrier has been switched, Burney said, defining that as “their benefit provider has changed two or three times.”
The union approved the deal on a 10 to one ratio, he said.
Council member Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) asked Burney about doctors being out of network under 2.0; Burney said there’s a “90 percent overlay of doctors” and 2.0 representatives will pursue doctors outside of the network as aggressively as possible. The benefits are equivalent or better than what the retirees already have, in said in response to Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large), with co-pays going from $25 to $15 and contributions going down.
“I understand the angst,” Burney said, explaining that the effort has gone toward getting unions to agree to the switch by Jan. 1, and there are sessions planned this month and in December to explain details to retirees.
Retirees were not part of the negotiations, he said.
“Their union represents their interest at the table,” Burney said, drawing laughter from the retirees.
“I don’t think we have options that we do with other kinds of items that come before us because of the timelines associated with collective bargaining,” Kimmel said, leading Council member Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) to explain that the Council is not allowed to make amendments to a contract.
“It’s a take it or leave it,” he said, and Kimmel explained that if the Council rejected the contract it would go to binding arbitration.
“Our job is generally to look at the net cost (of a contract) to the city, net cost, we understand that salary increases are only one side of that,” Kimmel said.
Generally if the net cost is under a benchmark of a 2.5 percent increase it’s approved, he said. This prevents the Council from micromanaging a contract, which might be a delicate balance.
“This was not drafted in haste. … There was over a year conversation between the union and the city, and both parties are satisfied,” Personnel Committee Chairman Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large) said.
“I don’t think anything in the contract that is objectionable. It’s pretty much the police contract – we already voted on the police contract. What’s troubling me is that the retirees were not communicated with,” Hempstead suggested that the matter be tabled.
The situation likely wouldn’t change, Burney said.
Norwalk Firefighters Association, IAFF Local 830, President Elefterios “Lefty” Petrides declined to come to the podium.
“I am as comfortable as I can be with a new plan,” he said, in response to Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B).
He spoke to the retirees, and said they had been re a liason.
“There’s language in the contract that allows the city to change plans, cost effective. It’s there. So why would you delay it for two weeks? … Don’t delay it, vote no. Just get it over with.
“We are now negotiating aspects that the union negotiated, which is not our job,” Council President John Igneri (D-District E) said.
“It was more of a courtesy to the people in the audience,” Hempstead said, of his suggestion that the item be tabled. “I feel bad for retirees, if you are affected in a negative sense. but there is nothing here that we can do as a Council that can change that. We can’t change that. It would have to be next time in negotiation.”
“People who served, people who put their lives on the line, are left out of the conversation, that’s absolutely horrible,” said Council member Eloisa Melendez (D-District A), whose father is a retired police officer. “… It’s a tough decision, it’s respect but it’s also a reality.”
The contract passed 11-0-3, with Steve Serasis (U-District A), Travis Simms (D-District B) and Bowman abstaining.
After the meeting, Petrides said that a liason for the retirees had been part of the negotiations, and, “It’s not up to the union to inform them.”