Damakant Jayshi

Amid strong opposition, the Finance Committee of the City of Wausau on Tuesday narrowly approved a proposal to give a one-time $1,000 bonus to more than 100 staff members who are not represented by unions.

Since the language of the resolution on providing the one-time amount created confusion and drew significant opposition, the Finance Committee chair asked Human Resources Director Toni Vanderboom to make adjustments before the proposal comes to the City Council next month. The final decision on the payment, either as proposed or with the inclusion of other employees, will likely be taken up by the full council in its last meeting of 2021, on December 14.

The five-member body approved the proposal by a 3-2 vote after hearing objections from committee members and others, including Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven, Finance Director Maryanne Groat and others. The nearly 45-minute-long debate even discussed whether the amount could be called a bonus and whether it was a back-handed effort to weaken unions by excluding represented employees.

Billed as part of the retention initiative and aimed at closing the “disparity” gap for 113 employees – roughly one-third of the workforce – the measure excludes 145 employees who are represented by three unions – police, firefighters, and transit – and about 60 employees who are not represented and are below the mid-point on the plan’s salary structure. Wausau has about 320 employees, according to the HR Department, though the city’s website lists about 350.

Recognizing confusion over the language as well as the opposition, Finance Committee Chair Lisa Rasmussen, of Dist. 7, said she would ask the City’s Human Resources Committee, which first approved the bonus proposal, to look into hazard pay and longevity benefits plan for employees. Vanderboom said union employees already have a longevity plan.

Finance Committee member Sarah Watson, who represents Dist. 8, suggested including union-represented employees in the bonus plan right away as the overall fiscal impact was minimal.

“If not given across the board, even if there is a fairly good rationale (for the bonus), it is just going to keep driving a wedge between City employees,” Watson said.

Watson said excluded employees should get the bonus eventually even if the committee didn’t make the decision right away, since all were on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also questioned whether “bonus” was the right term describing the lump sum amount.

Rasmussen agreed with Watson on the confusion created by the wording of the bonus resolution.

“It looks like a market adjustment,” Rasmussen said, adding that she would prefer the HR Committee to dig further before a decision is made. Vanderboom admitted the language used has created unintended consequences.

But Rasmussen defended the lump sum amount for non-represented staff, noting that the three groups of employees represented by unions in Wausau were allowed to bargain and that those union employees would be able to renegotiate “anything and everything they chose” soon. Rasmussen said she is concerned that some groups are able to negotiate their benefits periodically, while others were not, thus they are falling behind.

The Department of Human Resources had made the bonus recommendation to as part of its employee retention efforts given the tight labor market during the ongoing pandemic. The department has identified over 100 staff who are at or above mid-point in the current calendar year.

At the moment, “103 are at or above the mid-point and 113 will be at or above the mid-point in 2022 when the other recruitment retention initiatives are implemented,” Vanderboom told Wausau Pilot & Review.

According to the HR Department, these employees have not received cost-of-living increases, as some union employees have. The $1,000 amount is greater than 1% of an employee’s salary for all except the eight of the highest paid staff, most of them directors. If approved, the funds would be paid for through “the (tax) levy, utilities, and other funding sources available,” according to City documents. The fiscal impact would be more than $100,000.

Vanderboom told the Finance Committee that the City has approached represented and non-represented markets separately and it is fair to provide the funds to those who are not members of unions, since the represented employees negotiate pay and benefits during contract negotiations.

She also pointed out the difference in the salary scale of represented and non-represented employees. A non-represented employee reaches maximum pay in 17-21 years, while a police officer takes six years, though that period can be less depending on education. For a bus operator and firefighter, the period was six years and 10 years, respectively.

Upon questioning from Finance Director Maryanne Groat, Vanderboom acknowledged that the proposal could seem unfair to unrepresented employees who have not yet reached the mid-point in the salary structure. This prompted Groat to complain that her department’s staff, who have worked like front line workers during the pandemic, were being excluded. Groat wants them included in the plan, which would add to the more than 100 higher level staff and 145 union-represented employees.

Alderman Tom Kilian, who represents Dist. 3, said union-represented employees should also be given the bonus (amounting to $145,000 in additional funding) and rejected the denial on the basis of fiscal costs.

“The policy cost and reputational costs to the City of Wausau would be much higher than the $145,000 if you don’t do that,” Kilian said. “Our City is run by workers, not politicians and businesses,” he said.

Kilian said the issue highlights the importance of unions. He alleged that giving the bonus as proposed would be tantamount to weakening the unions.

Chief of Wausau Police Department Benjamin Bliven also objected to those in uniform being excluded from the bonus proposal.

“It is not my intention to create any animus or division in our City ranks with my words,” Bliven said, adding that “every non-represented employee (in) 2022 got 2% increase,” whether they were mid-point or below. Those below the mid-point would see a condensed pay scale and those above would receive the $1,000 bonus, he added.

Bliven insisted the money should be termed a bonus and not a market adjustment, which is cost-of-living adjustment that every employee receives. The same bonus logic should apply to those in uniform, he said.

Bliven pointed out that the police department hired 18 people in the last 3 years and that his salary was double of those 18.

“I am eligible for the bonus as is being discussed but those 18 are not,” the police chief said. “It doesn’t make sense to me logically why that would be the case.” Acknowledging that the police are able to negotiate their annual cost of living increase, he said the department also faces the challenge of recruitment and retention, the very rationale behind the bonus to 103 employees of the City.

(To view the detailed information and the resolution, click here, and go to page 87.)

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.