Chicago firefighters and paramedics have agreed to sign on to a healthcare plan for city workers that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed as a way to drive down costs by keeping employees healthier.
But the move might have implications beyond firefighters' physical well-being. It comes about seven months before the Firefighters Union Local 2Ö contract lapses, and negotiations on a new deal could be contentious. Emanuel has refused to rule out seeking to close firehouses and reduce the number of personnel on each truck in order to cut costs.
James Balcer, 11th, chairman of the City Council Public Safety Committee, said firefighters could be paving the way for smoother contract talks next year by volunteering now to join the wellness plan.
“Sure it helps. I hope so,” Balcer said. “The unions are going to have their issues, and the mayor's office will have theirs, but it's for all of us to come together and work together and resolve these issues to the betterment of the city.”
Emanuel, who is counting on saving $20 million in 2012 through the health plan, hailed the decision by unionized firefighters to take part. “I am pleased that they are joining the city’s wellness program, to improve their own quality of life and further protect taxpayer resources,” he said in a statement. “On behalf of all Chicagoans, the firefighters have our continued appreciation.”
Mayoral spokeswoman Chris Mather said cooperation on the wellness plan could presage cooperation on the contract.
“Wellness is another example of labor unions and the City of Chicago working together to do what is best for the city's taxpayers and city employees and there is no reason to think that same cooperation won't be applied in the future to achieve our shared goal of keeping the public safe and protecting taxpayers,” Mather said in an e-mail.
Emanuel's wellness plan emphasizes doctor check-ups and follow-up counseling to stop city employees from contracting preventable diseases like diabetes that drive up healthcare costs.
About 5,100 firefighters and paramedics, plus 3,400 of their spouses, will be entered in the program. That brings the total number of participants to about 35,000, according to the mayor’s office.
Firefighters union president Thomas Ryan said it made sense for his members to become part of the new wellness plan because the union has long held events to help firefighters live healthier to avoid preventable diseases.
But Ryan also hopes the city will take note of the union’s voluntary participation during negotiations. “We did pro-actively take part in it, and we hope that will be looked at in anything going forward,” Ryan said.
Chicago firefighters join health plan as contract talks loom
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