By Elizabeth F. McNamara
After all the firefighter-town contention over the past two years, the town’s new three-year contract with the union passed 5-0 with nary a comment at the special Town Council meeting Monday night.
“This success was possible because both the town and our firefighters bargained in good faith, with the premise that each side benefits from the success of the other. And that our ultimate goal is to provide first-rate fire and rescue services to our community,” said Council President Mark Schwager before the vote.
Schwager said the decision to present the contract to the public before the vote came in light of the increased interest the past two years in the firefighters, particularly the department’s high overtime costs. Under the former administration, the town and the firefighters faced off in Superior Court over the firing of one firefighter (which the judge ruled to have been illegal) and the town’s desire to switch the firefighters from a four-platoon, 42-hour work week to a three-platoon, 56-hour work week (which the judge did not allow), as well as a host of smaller issues.
The new Town Council, elected in November, pledged to pursue a less acrimonious relationship with the fire department and town employees in general.
“We’re back to working together to provide our community with fire and rescue services that are top notch in quality while giving our firefighters fair wages and benefits that our community can sustainably support,” Schwager said Monday night.
Under the new contract, the most significant immediate savings for the town comes from a reduction in minimum manning per shift from nine to eight firefighters, with a ninth to remain on the schedule as a “floater.” According to finance consultant Mike D’Amico, that change will result in a more than $478,000 savings the first year (actually 14 months, because the floater will be reintroduced starting Wednesday, May 1), with additional savings in years two and three of more than $800,000.
Taking into account wage increases (no raise in year one, 2 percent in years two and three) and some smaller additional pay increases (including incentive pay for firefighters with specific medical training, two hours more holiday pay and, potentially, higher pay for collateral duty) and the overall savings for the three years of the contract comes to $967,000, according to D’Amico.
Find the entire 54-page contract here (Town of EG – Firefighter contract), D’Amico’s contract fiscal analysis here (FF CBA Fiscal Analysis 2019-22), OPEB projections here (OPEB Exhibits), and D’Amico’s accompanying contract memo here (FF 2019-22 CBA Fiscal Note).
Another bonus for the town comes from changes in health care retiree benefits that will bring substantial long-term benefits. New employees will have to work for the town for 20 years before they are eligible for any health care coverage in retirement. The contract also caps what the town will pay for Medicare gap coverage, bringing the town’s OPEB (other post-employment benefits) liability future down by $2.7 million in year one, a figure that grows to $6.4 million in 2028.
Councilor Mike Zarrella asked Town Solicitor Mike Ursillo about the bills working through the General Assembly that, if signed into a law, would require overtime pay for firefighters who work more than 42 hours a week, since sometimes EG firefighters work 48-hour weeks.
According to Ursillo, the bills say overtime would be based on an eight-week average of firefighter hours. EG firefighters work 48 hours one week but 36 hours the next, for an average of 42 hours a week.
“Assuming the bill becomes law,” Ursillo told the council, “the way our system works this should not be a problem for us…. In the normal course under the provisions of our contract, this will not be an issue.”
Ursillo spoke earlier in the meeting about other changes to the contract, such as a move to give the chief more latitude to allow injured firefighters to return to work on light or modified duty if that was deemed appropriate.
Additionally, there was a change made that would make it less likely a firefighter would stay out on injured on duty (IOD) status for years and years.
While the firefighter contract was a big hurdle, the past two years also brought a host of grievances, unfair labor practice complaints and a federal Fair Labor Standards Act case against the town. According to council Vice President Mike Donegan, combined there are more than 50 of these issues still pending that the town and firefighters are actively working to resolve.
Meanwhile, the town’s negotiating team (Ursillo, D’Amico and acting Town Manager Joe Duarte) has begun meeting with representatives of the four other municipal unions. Like the firefighters, their contracts are up June 30.
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