The city of Albany and its employees in two bargaining units have entered mediation to help them come to a resolution on a new contract.
The two groups had their first meeting Monday and have a second scheduled for Oct. 30.
The city is negotiating with two units within the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, representing 178 employees.
AFSCME Local 2909 represents most city employees apart from police and fire, including library, pool, senior center and street maintenance employees. AFSCME Local 2909-1, the transit unit, represents bus drivers, transit dispatch and transit maintenance.
The groups began negotiations in April and decided in September mediation would be necessary. Union members led an informational picket Monday to mark the first meeting.
One of the points at issue is how long the contract should be. Four years is the current working plan.
Other sticking points are wages, health care and certain working conditions.
The union is seeking a 5 percent cost of living allowance increase for the first year of the contract, followed by a COLA of 3 to 5 percent the second year and 2 to 5 percent the third year. The city is proposing a 2.1 percent COLA the first year and increases of 0 to 3 percent in subsequent years, tied to the Consumer Price Index.
"Our members consist of the lowest wage earners within the City and the cost of living in Albany is not what it used to be," said Sheena Dickerman, president of AFSCME Local 2909/2909-1. "This year management, non-bargaining, police and fire have already received a 2.5 percent wage increase."
Jorge Salinas, assistant city manager and a member of the bargaining team, said the union's request would total $5 million in additional costs, which he said is 50 percent of the total costs to the city today.
"We're trying to mitigate costs going forward," he said. "Things are not getting easier."
Both sides are asking for changes to health care.
Danette Jamison, human resources director, said right now, employees contribute 4 percent to their health care costs — $79.08 per month — and the city contributes 96 percent, or $1,897.84 per family. The city is proposing the employee contribution increase by $19.77 per month, bringing the split to 95-5.
In addition, the city contributes to a Voluntary Employee Benefit Association, a pre-tax fund employees can use or save for medical costs. Employees can use $1,000 per year for themselves or $2,000 per year for themselves plus family. The union is proposing those totals increase to $1,500 and $3,000.
Both sides noted a change in plans last year that involved switching AFSCME to a high-deductible health care plan that resulted in strong savings for the city.
"Our members were told that other bargaining units would do the same, but that was not the case. For example, police workers had no out of pocket expenses for the first year, and we are asking for the same," Dickerman said.
"Our members can’t afford to take themselves and their families to the doctor," she went on. "For example, for some the total wages for the year increased by approximately $950 but their out-of-pocket health care cost increased by $2,000. That is a huge financial hit."
Dickerman said some contract language that doesn't have an impact on finances also is at issue. She said members have proposed several changes to language on nondiscrimination, promoting diversity and creating a harassment-free workplace. So far, she said, there's been no movement on that request.
City bargainers also say they have to plan for the Equal Pay Act, which goes into effect Jan. 1 and has an impact on how benefits are allocated to bargaining units.
"Whatever we do for AFSCME, really, we have to do for non-bargainers," Jamison said. "It increases our costs significantly."