CLEARWATER — For the city, the key issues at stake in its stalled union negotiations with firefighters are about being able to manage its employees.
The fire union says they're about the quality of life for men and women who put their lives on the line.
But the only issue before the City Council next month will be whether to give the city's firefighters a general wage increase for a year of work that has already passed.
The city declared an impasse in June after a year of trying to reach a three-year contract. Firefighters have worked without a contract since Sept. 30, 2007. Officials waived holding a hearing before a special magistrate from the state's Public Employees Relations Commission and have requested that the City Council make a recommendation on whether firefighters get a one-year raise.
Clearwater's council will hear the matter at 9 a.m. Sept. 18. The scheduled three-hour hearing is open to the public.
The council will decide only whether firefighters get a raise and the city and the union must continue to work to reach consensus on a multiyear contract. A few of the main points of disagreement are:
Bid system: The city wants the contract to say clearly that management has the authority to assign firefighters to specific stations.
The union wants firefighters to use the system they have used for years where they can choose where they work based on seniority.
City human resources director Joe Roseto says the union not only wants to be able to bid for shifts, but also for specific stations and pieces of equipment. That, he said, clashes with the city's obligation to put workers where they are needed.
"There is no business anywhere in the world where employees have that kind of control," Roseto said. "The bid system the union proposes is not acceptable. We need to manage the department and control cost. They don't want us to be able to control cost and manage them properly. They want to be able to tell us what to do."
International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1158's president John Lee said the bid system should not be an issue because he has two documents, signed by current Chief Jamie Geer and a former chief that acknowledge the current system. Lee also questioned why it is okay for the Police Department to have a bid system and not the Fire Department.
"It really shouldn't be an issue," Lee said. "Our people would like to stay in the stations that they bid for continuity of crew. You work with the same crew, you know what they are going to do and you get to know your area. If you move every other day, you don't know the area."
Lee is also concerned that the city will use the right to punish firefighters.
"We used to call it discipline through staffing," he said. "They just move you around to harass you."
In the city's proposed contract, the language is often changed to say employees who are on promotion or assignment lists are eligible after "having been deemed qualified by the department." The language previously said "upon meeting the minimum qualifications and having been deemed qualified."
"The city wants to be the ultimate decisionmaker to deem someone qualified, and that's the good ol' boy system," Lee said. "If they don't meet the minimum eligibility requirement, why would you want them? I have no idea how they can take that stance as human resources professionals."
But Roseto said it has been the practice in fire services for decades.
"If the department deems you are qualified to work in a higher position, they can compensate you," he said. "The city will not permit that if they are not qualified. You have to go through a check list."
The city says the union wants certain times on their 24-hour shifts to be free of any training. That would include two hours at lunch, a 30-minute daily break, after 5 p.m. on weekdays, and all weekend. In addition, the union wants only six hours of night training per year.
Union officials said the two-hour lunch window is when firefighters go to lunch or to the gym. The entire two hours is not used. During those times, they still receive and are dispatched to calls. As for training, they would like the schedule in writing.
"We don't have any problem doing training required for us to do, we just like to have a schedule," Lee said. "You leave things unexplained and out in the open, that's when we have grievances and problems and we want to avoid those. Firefighters are used to a set schedule because everything else is unpredictable."
The city wants the contract wording to clarify that EMT certification is required for employment, and that if the certification lapses, workers can be dismissed. The union said that for firefighters hired after a certain date, the EMT certification is already a condition of employment.
Lee said the union wants more than 90 days for someone to be able retain their certifications because of limitations of when classes are offered. In addition, union members fear the city will use the county's medical director to pull certifications. If that happens, the union can't appeal the dismissals. The county medical director has already pulled the certifications of three city firefighters.
Roseto said that's the way it is now.
"Here's the issue," Roseto said. "Eighty percent of our calls are EMS calls. If they lose their certification, they can't do the job."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4174.