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Thirty-two members of the Chicago Fire Department’s exempt ranks resigned their exempt positions Monday and returned to the rank-and-file in a fight over pay and benefits that will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The brass members will return to their career service ranks of battalion chief and, in one case, paramedic field chief, but continue to “act up” in their exempt positions.

That means the 32 bosses will now be eligible for overtime, holiday pay, duty availability, Hazmat and other forms of supplemental and specialty pay afforded to members of the rank-and-file.

The 32 bosses who resigned en masse effective at 8 a.m. Monday represent more than half of the brass on the fire suppression side of the Chicago Fire Department and just one of roughly a dozen bosses overseeing emergency medical services.

They include: First Deputy Fire Commissioner Richard Ford II; Mark Nielsen, deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Operations, Michael Callahan, who oversees logistics, and Don Hroma, district chief of training.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this month that dozens of Fire Department brass had threatened to resign and return to their career service ranks in a squabble over pay and benefits that threatened to create a leadership vacuum.

The fire officials are seeking pension changes, expanded health insurance benefits and pay raises — and have been unable to persuade Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago to sweeten the pot for them.

The mayor’s office has argued that would require a change in the state pension code and that a so-called “brass bill” pending in Springfield would allow exempt fire employees to earn a pension based on the pay for their current jobs.

Fire officials must retire at age 63. But exempt officials — non-union, senior staff — must pay for their own health insurance until they hit 65.

Exempt fire officials also lose pay perks, including vacation time, overtime and supplemental pay when they become exempt staff members.

In addition, the state pension code doesn’t allow exempt fire officers to earn pension benefits based on their current salary. Instead, their pension benefits are based on the lower salary of their most recent union-covered job.

All of that can cost brass members as much as $25,000-a-year.

Some rank-and-file members questioned why Emanuel didn’t just let the bosses quit and replace them instead of allowing them to return to their career service ranks in an arrangement with the potential to cost Chicago taxpayers a fortune.

But a source familiar with the resignations said that kind of ultimatum would be easier said than done.

“It’s hard to get people to serve as exempts because, as soon as they cross over, they lose money,” the source said.

As for the mass resignations, the official argued that the Fire Department brass had no other choice. All 32 exempts are closing in on the mandatory retirement age of 63.

“Most of the people in this group are up against the wall.
They have to self-demote two-to-four years before they retire to rebuild their pension before turning 63,” the source said.

“The collective bargaining agreement has improved over the years for the rank-and-file, but it has not improved for the exempts. In private industry, when the rank-and-file gets something, the bosses also get something. That hasn’t happened in the Fire Department. Some of these guys have lost in excess of $25,000. That’s rather insane.”

One battalion chief, who isn’t a member of the exempt ranks because he didn’t want to take a hit on pay and benefits, said he thinks the controversy is an example of the mayor and the fire commissioner losing their focus on treating firefighters fairly.

“It’s a sad day for the Chicago Fire Department,” he said. “There’s a lack of leadership at the top. It’s us and them now. A lot of this has been a distraction. We need to be thinking about the junior men and women on the trucks and ambulances. This is unheard of.”