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Clearwater, fire union at impasse after year of talks

CLEARWATER — After a year of negotiations, Clearwater has declared an impasse in its effort to reach a contract with the local fire union.

Both sides have offered various proposals on pay, and the union says the length of the workweek is a key issue.

"We now move to the next phase of negotiations," City Manager Bill Horne said.

The city has requested that a special magistrate from the state's Public Employees Relations Commission hold a hearing and make a recommendation on a contract to the city and the International Association of Fire Fighters local.

If both sides reject that recommendation, the matter would go to the City Council, which would make the final decision.

The city and union also can waive the hearing to send the matter directly to the City Council, said Steve Meck, PERC's general counsel.

Both options would only cover a one-year contract while the sides continue to hash out a multiyear deal.

"I'm disappointed," Clearwater City Council member John Doran said. "I had hoped that we would be able to negotiate an agreement that was mutually acceptable, which of course neither party would be happy with, but at least we could agree."

The groups have been meeting since May 2007. The 2004-07 contract with the city expired in October, and firefighters have been working without one since then. The city will not give firefighters a budgeted 3 percent raise until a deal is reached.

The city would not talk about the issues that are stifling negotiations. "I'm not at a point at which we can discuss that," said Joe Roseto, the city's human resources director and the official who has attended the negotiations.

The city offered several contracts. One was a one-year deal that didn't include a raise. The other was a three-year contract that provided for a 2 percent raise the first year. In each of the following two years, the union and the city would renegotiate any potential raises.

Union officials wanted the same 4 percent raise given to other city employees. In October 2006, the Police Department negotiated a 4 percent annual raise for three years. The Communications Workers of America Local 3179, the city's largest employee union, also received about a 4 percent annual raise.

One contract offered by the union called for no raise as long as Horne and other senior managers returned the 4 percent raise they accepted at the beginning of the year.

There are several sticking points, said John Lee, the president of IAFF Local 1158. The union noted 14 points in March.

"The raise is not the major issue," he said. "It's really not about money."

Rather, a major concern is what Lee says is the city's attempt to make firefighters work more than 53 hours a week. Currently, firefighters can volunteer to work more. During the last contract negotiations, the workweek was gradually reduced from 56 to 53 hours.

"With a five-day notice, they are going to mandate that we come in and work on our days off and it's going to cause havoc with our families," Lee said.

Another issue is the time allotted for continuing education, Lee said. To retain their licenses, paramedics have to accumulate a certain number of education hours. Lee said the city wants to limit when the training is completed, and he said that's a problem.

"If you are in the hospital for an extended time and you miss the class and can't attend the makeup, they are proposing that they could lay you off," Lee said. "You need to be able to work with employees because stuff happens. That's language we can't accept in a contract."

The two sides have a salty history and a record of seeing contract negotiations stall in the past.

It took more than two years for the city and the union to come to an agreement for the 2004-07 contract. An impasse was declared then, too.

"As a council member you have to be concerned," Doran said. "We work with two other unions and we are able to get contracts with them."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

Clearwater, fire union at impasse after year of talks 06/03/08 [Last modified: Sunday, June 8, 2008 8:29am]
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