EFR, firefighters union start contract talks
April 12, 2011
By Caleb Heeringa
As Eastside Fire & Rescue union representatives and board members sit down to hammer out a new labor deal, firefighters point to the numerous concessions they’ve made in recent years in response to the economic recession.
Board members, beholden to their own city and fire district budgets and wary of the increasing costs of fire service, say their agencies are still feeling the effect of the recession.
Neither side will comment publicly on the specifics of ongoing negotiations, but the talks are sure to be important to both sides in an agency that has seen contentious budget battles in the past.
“I’m hopeful that we can get a contract that is satisfactory (to firefighters) but still recognizes that economic conditions haven’t really improved,” said Sammamish Mayor Don Gerend, a representative to the EFR board. “Everyone is cinching up their belts across the board and public safety is a major expense at the city level.”
EFR Deputy Chief Wes Collins said the union and board hope to decide this month whether they’ll extend the current labor contract, renegotiate certain parts of the current contract or start from scratch on a new agreement.
A full-scale renegotiation would likely start in June or July and could last through the end of the year, he said, possibly leaving the board responsible for setting up 2012’s budget without knowing what they’ll have to spend on wages.
Craig Hooper, president of IAFF 2878, the union that represents EFR firefighters, said union members have gone out of their way to help the board balance the agency’s budget when revenues fell in recent years.
Budget crunch prompted concessions
The current labor contract calls for the agency to compare its wages with neighboring fire departments when determining annual wage increases, which has led to wage hikes as high as 3 or 4 percent several years ago. With the agency facing a revenue crunch, the union agreed to forgo that process, freeze wages in 2010 and tie their increase in 2011 to the cost of living — about one-fifth of 1 percent.
The union also agreed to change overtime rules to allow a less-experienced firefighter to cover for a sick coworker who is higher up the organizational ladder, meaning the agency wouldn’t have to pay another firefighter overtime to cover that position.
Faced with a budget crunch in late 2009, the union leadership also took it upon itself to find a cheaper medical plan for employees, which has saved the agency more than $50,000 per year in medical costs. With medical costs rising every year, the union also agreed to a deal that caps the agency’s portion of increases to health insurance at 6 percent until 2014.
Hooper said some firefighters feel the board doesn’t fully appreciate the compromises they’ve made in recent years.
“We do something that helps the budget and (the board) is grateful for it and then a few months later they come back and want something else from us,” he said. “It’d be nice if we could get more recognition (from the board) for what we’ve done for the department and the community.”
Hooper declined to comment on what, specifically, the union has requested be included in its new contract, but did say he was hopeful the board would consider changing firefighters work schedule to a “48/96.”
The department currently uses the so-called Modified Detroit model — one day on, one off, one on, one off, one on and four off. Some firefighters say going back and forth from on days to off days prevents them from developing good sleeping patterns and increases the likelihood of a fatigued employee coming to work.
Union could seek to ‘recapture’ wages
Hooper said firefighters would prefer to work two 24-hour shifts in a row and then receive four days off — allowing a smoother transition between on time and off time, and cutting down on commute time and sick leave.
The union asked the board to consider the schedule changes last September, but the board said it didn’t feel comfortable without more study of the potential impacts. At the time, the board suggested that the issue come up in this year’s contract talks.
“I’m hopeful the board will give some consideration to it,” Hooper said. “I’m disappointed with how it turned out (in September).”
At Sammamish’s City Council retreat in February, EFR Deputy Chief Jeff Griffin, who along with the rest of the administrative staff is not unionized, warned the council that the union might be looking to “recapture” the wage increases it turned down in recent years
The board has been able to hammer out budgets the last two years that saw relatively small cost increases. With the union feeling it has made plenty of sacrifices, Griffin warned that might not come so easy next year.
“(Union negotiations) can turn in a heartbeat when things get contentious,” he told the council and city staff members at the retreat. “People feel like they’ve held back. They feel like they deserve a higher level (of wages of benefits) and they have nothing left to give … As a company, we care about the people that work for us, but we have limited resources to give.”
Caleb Heeringa: 392-6434, ext. 247, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.