Florida Firefighters Push Vote to Leave Union

Palm Beach County firefighters file petition claiming union hasn’t served their interests
WILLIAM KELLY, Palm Beach Daily News Published Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Weeks after the town's police officers opted to leave their union, the town's firefighters are petitioning for a vote to do the same.

Petitions have been filed with the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission to revoke the certification of the firefighters union, IAFF Local 2928 Professional Firefighters/Paramedics of Palm Beach County. That is the union that has represented the firefighters in labor contract negotiations with the town since 2001.

A vote has not been scheduled. The town's Mini Public Employees Relations Committee is set to meet at 4 p.m. on Nov. 1 so it can schedule the vote.

The union represents two bargaining units within the department - the firefighter/paramedics, and the supervisors, which are those holding the rank of lieutenant or assistant fire marshal.

In both cases, at least 30 percent of the members must sign a petition calling for a decertification vote. The two groups vote separately; in each case, a simple majority is required to leave the union.

The petitions have been signed by 18 of the 37 members of the firefighter/paramedics unit, and by six of the 16 members of the supervisory unit.

Lt. Donald W. Taylor, the lead petitioner for the supervisors' unit, said those who have signed do not feel the union is serving their interests.

Under state law, the Town Council is the final arbiter of the labor negotiations. Last year, the council imposed its will on all matters at impasse, even after a special magistrate sided with the union in most cases, Taylor said.

Citing financial constraints, the council imposed deep cuts in firefighters' pensions, and gave no ground on other issues, including bonuses, promotions, sick leave and drug testing.

"The town has made it pretty clear that they don't like dealing with a third party," Taylor said. "We hear that, loud and clear."

Taylor said firefighters were watching when, on Sept. 11, the town's police officers and sergeants voted overwhelmingly to rid themselves of their union, the Fraternal Order of Police. The police officers also had their pension benefits cut, and haven't had raises in three years. Detective Nicholas Caristo, who led their decertification effort, said the union failed to represent them effectively.

The firefighters' union made some significant gains in the early years, most notably winning a town concession to replace a pay-for- performance plan with step increases, Taylor said. But the pension cuts reduced benefit levels while forcing firefighters to wait until age 65 to draw them; previously they could begin drawing upon retirement, after as few as 20 years of employment.

There were other setbacks, Taylor said.

Perhaps the most notable one was the elimination of Kelly days, which were unpaid days off built into firefighters' schedules so they work 48-hour weeks, on average, rather than 56-hour weeks on average. Elimination of the Kelly days enabled the town to reduce the number of firefighters, creating a budget savings. But it means that firefighters must work 416 additional hours each year, without any additional pay, Taylor said. The firefighters are paid for the additional work hours, but the town lowered their hourly pay so their bottom-line compensation would remain the same, he said.

According to Taylor, no other fire department in Palm Beach County has eliminated Kelly days.

At the same time, the town's firefighters haven't had raises during the past three years.

The Fire-Rescue Department has not suffered from the rash of disciplinary problems that have plagued the Police Department, and there have been fewer outward signs of turmoil. But Taylor said department personnel have suffered. For young firefighters looking for a place to build a career, Palm Beach is no longer a prime destination, he said.

"For years, people didn't leave" the department, he said. "We have lost a half-dozen people since February, and we're going to lose more. ... I'm not sure the council even understands how much impact it has had on us, personally, by the things it has done."

Ricky Grau, president of Professional Firefighters/Paramedics of the Palm Beach County, Local 2928, did not immediately return a message seeking comment for this story.

Andrea de la Riva, a driver/engineer within Palm Beach Fire- Rescue, left her post as the local union representative about a month ago, and no one has stepped up to fill the void, Taylor said.

Whether leaving the union could result in pay increases for firefighters during the next year remains to be seen.

The council included increases in the pay ranges of all non- union employees when it approved a budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

Now that they are also non-union, the council at its meeting on Tuesday will consider boosting the pay ranges of the police officers and sergeants, making it possible for them to receive their first pay increases in three years.

Citing state labor relations law, Town Manager Peter Elwell declined to speculate on whether the same might happen for the firefighters if they vote to leave their union.

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