FNSB Building

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

Negotiations between the borough and its largest public employee union continued on and off Tuesday with the focus on wages, leave time and health care benefits.

This is the seventh month of haggling over a new three-year public employee contract. The next negotiating session is in early June. The current contract expires June 30.

The union asked for a lump sum payment of $2,000 for each public employee in exchange for a requirement that workers maintain a minimum leave balance of 24 hours for emergencies.

“This is a chance to give something back to employees,” said Micheal Koskie, negotiator and lawyer for the Fairbanks North Star Borough Employees Association. “We’re not in favor of the 24-hour leave bank with nothing in return.”

Koskie said the $2,000 payment would make up for “leave loss” during the pandemic.

Borough negotiators took a break and then responded with a counter offer on wages. There was a response from the union asking for more money and then another offer by the borough described by Michelle Michel, borough human resources director, as a salary progression of “way over 5%” over the life of the contract.

The negotiations began with Michel reading an April 21 letter from Borough Mayor Bryce Ward to Koskie complaining about the slow progress of negotiations and stating that further delay will also delay the annual longevity raise of up to 3% that the vast majority borough employees receive every July 1.

Ward expressed frustration saying the union is asking the borough to give up management rights.

“We have been in negotiations for more than half a year and, as of now, we have yet to tentatively agree to a single and substantial monetary term,” Ward wrote.

Koskie said union negotiators had read the letter and that bringing it up was “showmanship” and “totally not needed.”

He said the union’s negotiating team is “sorry the mayor is disappointed” but the administration hasn’t made financial offers that they can agree to. He later brought up the letter again pointing out that 36 of 41 contract articles are in tentative agreement, adding that the letter is “on the verge of being an unfair labor practice.”

Koskie said the union will hold firm on health care benefits. The borough is looking to raise deductibles, out-of-pocket maximums and the employee contributions to health coverage.

Public employee health care costs have gone down in recent years and the union’s position is that raising the employee costs is unnecessary. Negotiators said raising employee health care costs would create barriers, people would seek less care and the workforce would become less healthy, potentially raising future health care costs.

The borough administration’s position was that there is pent up demand for health services due to the Covid-19 pandemic and that costs will rise in the next few years.

Health care consultant Colleen Savoie was called to answer questions. She said there had been no in-patient hospital admissions involving a borough or school district employee suffering from Covid-19 as of February. The borough has a low out-of-pocket maximum compared with other public employee health care plans, according to Savoie.

The borough later provided a new offer to the union that reduced concessions on health care, and Koskie said the union would consider it.

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