North Riverside’s village board is expected to officially ratify a new seven-year contract with North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714 early next month, ending a protracted era of labor strife during which the village failed to privatize its firefighting services.

Trustees are expected to vote to approve the deal at their meeting on Jan. 6. Following a closed session of the village board at the meeting on Dec. 16, Mayor Hubert Hermanek announced that the board had reached a consensus to approve the contract.

Asked by firefighters’ union president Chris Kribales to clarify what Hermanek meant by “consensus,” the mayor answered, “It’s a done deal, Chris.”

“To me, it’s a relief,” Hermanek told the Landmark in a phone interview following the announcement of the deal. “It’s good for the village.”

As for the union, while Kribales expressed optimism that a deal is at hand, he said he wanted to wait until the Jan. 6 vote before celebrating.

“I believe this is a good step in the right direction,” Kribales told the Landmark. “But forgive me if I’m a little hesitant to believe it, because we’ve had the carpet pulled out from under us before.”

The most recent union contract expired on April 30, 2014. The new deal, which will expire April 30, 2021, allows for a break before the two sides must get back to the negotiating table. 

Firefighters have already ratified the contract, but the village’s attorneys advised the village against giving a copy of the tentative deal to the Landmark for inspection prior to its official ratification on Jan. 6.

However, both Kribales and Hermanek confirmed the major updates to the contract, which include modest annual pay raises of 2.5 percent and an increase in the percentage employees must contribute to their health insurance premiums from 10 percent to 15 percent.

Sue Scarpiniti, the village’s finance director, said that while the exact amount hasn’t been calculated yet, the retroactive wages likely will amount to between $725,000 and $750,000, an amount that will be paid out by the end of February 2020.

“I have planned for this [retroactive pay] for several years now and have the needed funds available to complete the [payment],” Scarpiniti said in an email.

In addition, the village will move immediately to hire two more firefighters to get staffing back to 13 full-time union employees. The contract also requires the village to replace union firefighters as they retire to keep staffing constant.

“Those hires won’t be held in abeyance, as before,” Hermanek said.

The firefighters’ union has long contended that 13 full-timers – four lieutenants and nine firefighters – is the bare minimum staffing required to operate the department. The union has argued that it takes 19 full-time firefighters to staff the department.

Right now, the department has 11 union firefighters, in addition to the non-union chief and contract paramedics. The new contract will not require increasing staffing past 13 union firefighters.

In addition to the pay raises and increased insurance premiums, any new firefighters will be offered the village’s new standard health insurance options, which include HMO and PPO plans that are more affordable to the village compared to the PPO plan offered previously.

The village began phasing out that PPO plan years ago, but it was still part of the most recent firefighters’ contract and was a subject of negotiation for the new deal. The insurance plan provision is back dated to 2016, said Hermanek, and two firefighters hired in 2018 will be offered a $2,000 stipend apiece to give up the old PPO plan they are currently enrolled in to enroll in one of the new plans.

Finally, the contract amends slightly how required days off (RDO) are accrued. Firefighters will now accrue one RDO (sometimes called Kelly Days) for every nine days they work instead of every 8.5 days. In addition, those days will be assigned in the future and not be chosen by the firefighters.

In many ways, the new contract is an extension of the old one, with minor tweaks to the insurance and RDO requirements. 

Kribales called the deal “basically the same one that was put on the table five and a half years ago.”

Hermanek acknowledged as much, but still lauded the agreement.

“We didn’t move any mountains, but it’s a fair ordinance, and there’s labor peace,” he said.

A vote to ratify the contract on Jan. 6 will officially bring to an end a battle that’s been ongoing since mid-2014, when Hermanek announced a plan to privatize firefighting services in order to control costs, particularly fire pension obligations.

The village filed suit in fall 2014 to get a Cook County judge to agree with its contention that the village could unilaterally terminate the union contract after declaring an impasse.

But, time after time during the next four years, the village was rebuffed by the courts, with the Illinois Supreme Court ruling in January 2018 that the proper venue for resolving the contract dispute was either at the negotiating table or by a labor arbitrator.

Unwilling to risk an arbitrator’s ruling, the village in August retreated and decided to pursue a long-term deal and put an end to the dispute.

It’s unclear just how much the village expended over the past five and a half years to pursue that litigation, but village records appear to indicate North Riverside spent in excess of $500,000.

In 2013-14, the fiscal year immediately preceding the legal action, the village spent $47,762 on legal services related to the fire department. 

From May 1, 2014 through April 30, 2017, during the most active period of the court case, the village spent $621,379 on legal matters related to the fire department. Over the following two fiscal years, through April 30, 2019, the village spent about $118,899.

Those legal fees included not just the privatization court case, but legal fees for other fire department labor-related complaints.