FNSB Building

The Fairbanks North Star Borough Juanita Helms Administration Center is seen Saturday, June 20, 2020, in Fairbanks. Caitlin Miller/News-Miner

The Fairbanks North Star Borough and its biggest public employee union continued to disagree on multiple issues, including wages and paid leave, at contract talks Tuesday.

The union is seeking for the borough to provide 80 hours of paid leave for employees during catastrophes, pandemics, weather events, emergencies, unanticipated events or shutdowns. The borough is proposing to provide 40 hours of administrative leave to members who are not called to work due to a public disaster.

“I think we are being very generous offering 40 hours,” Michelle Michel, borough human resources director, told union negotiators.

“You keep saying that but you are not being generous,” responded union negotiator Rita Heselton.

The union took the position that the borough is giving them 40 hours but is asking them to sacrifice 80 hours of earned leave first. The union also wants more flexibility with remote work options. The borough said no.

“Telework is a management decision. Period,” Michel said.

Bargaining with the association, which represents more than 400 municipal employees, has been underway since October. The borough’s negotiating team is led by Michel with Chief of Staff Jim Williams and Personnel/Payroll Manager Diane Thomas. The Fairbanks North Star Borough Employees Association’s negotiators include Heselton, Michael Koskie, Jeana Apling and Stephanie Pearson.

The borough is offering the association no salary table increase for the first year of the contract and a cost-of-living increase in subsequent years. Most employees would still receive a pay increase known as a step increase of up to 3% on July 1 by advancing another year on the salary scale. If the consumer price index increases by more than 2%, the salary table would be increased in the amount that exceeds 2% during year two and year three of the proposal.

The union originally asked for 5% plus a cost of living increase, which Michel said would have cost borough taxpayers over $12 million. That request has been reduced. In its latest request on employee pay, the union asked for 0.5%, 1% and 2% increases to base salary tables respectively each year of the three-year agreement. Michel said the cost is down to an estimated $3-4 million.

“Still a number we cannot fund,” she told the union.

Negotiators for the employees association pushed back, and they also asked for statistics on unpaid employee leave.

An estimated 50 employees were forced to take leave without pay during Covid-19-related operational shutdowns.

In 2017, the total number of hours of leave without pay at the borough was calculated to be 1,754. In 2018, the number of hours was 1,389. In 2019, that number was 1,373, according to numbers provided by the borough human resources department. The hours for 2020 were not provided. Thomas, personnel manager, said 2020 was an atypical year.

The borough also wants to require employees to maintain 32 hours in their leave balance. After a break in which the union negotiators met privately, the union rejected that requirement.

“We have a no on it,” Koskie said.

Michel asked if the union has a counter offer, and the answer was no. Michel objected, and Koskie said the union will provide a written response at a later time.

The employees association is looking for concessions from the borough on flexible hours but borough negotiators said no to that and to a request on raising the ceiling on compensatory time.

The prolonged contract negotiations come as Borough Mayor Bryce Ward introduces his spending plan today for the fiscal year 2021-2022. The pending contract means some costs are still unknown.

The current three-year contract expires June 30. The next negotiating session was scheduled for April 23.

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMborough.