BANGOR — Contracts for several of the nine bargaining units representing city employees expired June 30. So how many of the units are still without a contract? All of them.
The public is most likely to be aware of city groups such as the Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, whose members at the Bangor City Nursing Facility held demonstrations twice this summer. Or perhaps they may have heard that city firefighters have been without a contract for more than two years.
But not counting school personnel, the city deals with nine bargaining units representing employees in a variety of areas:
Certified nurse’s aides, dietary, housekeeping and maintenance personnel at the Bangor City Nursing Facility.
Police support staff, such as dispatchers and clerical workers.
Weather observers-dispatchers at the airport.
The nursing facility, Bass Park and Bangor International Airport are among the city’s “enterprise funds,” departments which are intended to support themselves largely with their own revenues.
Bob Farrar, the director of administration for the city of Bangor, is also the city’s chief negotiator. Two years ago, many of the same contracts were expiring, and most of them eventually were settled.
The notable exception to that is the firefighters, who have been working without a contract for more than two years.
“Negotiations are still going on,” according to Lt. Dave Bickford, president of Bangor’s firefighters. Ground rules established by the city and the firefighters preclude his discussion of the issues.
Several of the 55 or so City Nursing Facility employees represented by the union picketed the nursing facility in June and City Hall in July to protest the lack of a contract, which would be the bargaining unit’s first with the city.
At those events, members of Local 5093 of the Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals spoke out about the lack of benefits for part-time employees, some of whom for years have worked 32 hours or more a week.
“We have made some progress [in negotiations],” union staff representative Ross Ferrell said Friday. “It has been important progress, but we are not settled.” He termed the current point in negotiations both significant and crucial.
“In general, a first contract takes longer than renegotiating,” Ferrell said, while acknowledging that there are many exceptions to that theory, many cases in which subsequent contracts can take a long time.
In Bangor, he said, the contract is really part of a bigger picture. “A major area of concern is the future of the nursing facility.”
City staff and the Bangor City Council have held discussions with board members of the nursing facility to ponder how to plan for a viable future for the 61-bed facility.
During budget workshops, as the council considered the facility’s city subsidy, Administrator Judith Young talked about the ways other long-term care facilities have diversified by adding services such as rehabilitation and adult day care. The facility’s city subsidy this year has been projected at $145,000.
Not counting school personnel, the city of Bangor has about 535 full-time employees, Farrar said. About half of those are represented by bargaining units.
Depending on the time of year, the city also has between 300 and 500 employees who are not full time. Most of them are seasonal, temporary or on call. They include a wide variety of employees, such as lifeguards in the city pools, summer workers for public works and on-call snowplow drivers.
Some of them may work many hours for weeks at a time, “but they don’t have the expectation of continued employment,” Farrar said.
Those who are not full time include about 75 “regular part-time” employees, such as city bus drivers, some airport workers, and about 20 to 25 of the employees at the City Nursing Facility.
If they work more than 20 hours a week, part-time employees receive one benefit: inclusion in the Maine State Retirement System. They do not receive benefits such as health insurance or holiday pay.
The fact that the number of regular part-timers is small is not the main reason for excluding them from benefits, Farrar said.
“The City Council has taken the position, over the years, that we can’t pay benefits to part-time employees,” he explained.
The cost of paying retirement for full-time and some part-time employees is not insignificant, he pointed out. Currently, Bangor pays a premium of 20.76 percent on an employee’s wages to Maine State Retirement, about triple what the cost would be for Social Security.
Two years ago, public works, Bass Park and the aircraft mechanics group reached agreement with the city in October, Farrar said. Two more contracts were settled by February or March.
The city and Local 5093 already have gone through negotiations, mediation and fact-finding, and are back to negotiating again.
In negotiations, the final step if agreement can’t be reached is arbitration.
“We’d always like to negotiate,” Farrar said. Ground rules between the two groups usually specify that issues will not be aired publicly until the latter stages of the process.
Farrar updates members of the Bangor City Council from time to time as to how negotiations are proceeding.
“The council gives me bargaining guidelines and the authority to negotiate,” he said. Just as a bargaining group is asked to ratify a contract brought to it by its representative, the council must vote on contracts worked out by Farrar on behalf of the city.
Farrar called negotiations “more of an art than a science.”