In September 2020, in the face of COVID-19 and the city’s budget, members of the Evanston Firefighters Association Local 742 union agreed to amend their collective bargaining agreement, foregoing salary increases instead of the 2.25% increases that had been negotiated for 2021 and 2022.

At the Sept. 19 meeting, First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly made the recommendation firefighters receive a one-time payment, a compensation for their sacrifice. The council approved the payment to firefighters for the income losses – using $494,059 for 105 employees from federal American Recovery Protection Act funds.

Speaking before the vote, Kelly expressed appreciation to firefighters, many of whom had to stay in hotels, away from home and families, during COVID-19.

It was a time when “the city was facing a shortfall of revenue, and so I’m very grateful to the firefighters for making that decision,” said Kelly, who in 2021 received the backing of the firefighters union in her 26-vote victory over incumbent Judy Fiske.

As part of the revised agreement in 2020, firefighters were able to retain their current operational deployment model, maintaining 26 firefighter per shift, “sufficient to ensure that companies responding to emergency calls had the staffing necessary to be effective and respond within the department’s average response time.”

“In lieu of not losing firefighters,” Kelly said, the staffing “not only helped to cement the team and culture in the Fire Department” but it also ensured the department maintained the highest standard of service for residents. Kelly also mentioned the department’s top fire protection rating from the Insurance Services Office.

Kelly stressed, “all this does is replace the money that they [firefighters] would have received had they not forfeited those raises during those two years.”

City Manager Luke Stowe noted in a memo that the city saved at least $680,000 from the firefighters’ concessions in 2021and 2022 and that the average member gave up approximately $6,500 in base pay compensation.

“Throughout the pandemic, members of Local 742 continued to work in-person, managing the ebbs and flows of the pandemic and taking personal risks, while hundreds of City workers worked remotely to keep their families safe and minimize their exposures to Covid-19,” he wrote.

Stowe’s memo continued: “The Fire Department continuously adapted to the changing dynamics of the pandemic to protect the City and its citizens. Additionally, firefighters were forced to work significantly more hours because the department was short-staffed; fatigue and burnout became real issues.”

Interim City Manager [Kelley] Gandurski noted in her 2022 budget transmittal letter that the city “has seen higher than expected revenue as economic activity continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. State income tax, building permits, real estate transfer tax, sales tax, and state use tax all show revenue higher than budgeted through mid-year 2021.”

In the 2020 negotiations, AFSCME Council 31, which represents employees in the public works department and the library, joined with the firefighters and agreed to forego wage increases after previously bargaining for increases.

However, the Evanston Police Department held out against agreeing to the 0% increase. The union noted that it had worked with the city in pre-COVID 2019 when officials expressed concern about future economic issues and had agreed to a 0% increase then.

Council members approved a series of other actions at the meeting, rewarding city employees and staff, drawing on reserves in the city’s General Fund. The council approved:

  • A retention “Thank You” bonus of $500 for all city employees;
  • A retention bonus of $2,500 for the non-union employees of the Evanston Police Department;
  • A 3% wage increase for all exempt employees of the city.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.