Published: Friday, December 16, 2011 in the Everett Herald
By Debra Smith
EVERETT -- The state Public Employment Relations Commission has ruled against the city of Everett for refusing to bargain with the firefighters union over the past two years about issues surrounding workload and overtime.
If the Dec. 2 ruling stands, the city could end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost overtime plus interest to the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 46.
Since firefighters can't strike to protest reduced staffing, filing the grievance was the only way the union could get the city's attention, said union president Paul Gagnon. He said he doesn't even want any money.
"This whole decision has nothing to do with the money," he said. "This has always been about service to citizens."
The city is reviewing the decision, including the potential monetary impact, said Everett spokeswoman Kate Reardon.
"It appears that the decision contains major errors and is not consistent with the law or the city-union collective bargaining agreement," she said.
Last January, the union filed a complaint with the state alleging unfair labor practices by the city. The union was upset about measures by city officials to clamp down on overtime costs.
The union also complained about a decision that led to more personnel from other fire districts responding to emergency calls in Everett.
In 2010, the city's chief financial officer, Debra Bryant, told Fire Chief Murray Gordon he had to live within the department budget. That included not exceeding the department's overtime allotment, according to the decision.
Like other local cities, Everett is struggling to to balance its operating budget at a time of sagging revenues.
The fire department and emergency medical services combined spent $8 million between 2006 and 2010 -- just on overtime. Sometimes, overtime spending far outstripped the amount budgeted. In 2009, for instance, the fire department spent $1.3 million on overtime -- $500,000 more than budgeted.
The fire department had been covering some shifts by having personnel work overtime.
When the fire department's overtime money ran out in the fall of 2010, an assistant chief instructed employees to fill all the shifts with as many firefighters as available without using overtime.
If not enough people were available, two aid cars or an engine unit were put out of service. The union described what happened as "brownouts."
When union officers attempted to meet with Mayor Ray Stephanson about staffing in November 2010, the mayor was emphatic that it would be he who made budget and staffing decisions, according to documents.
Hearing Examiner Katrina Boedecker found this behavior and other directives from city officials "inconsistent with a willingness to bargain."
The city presented each change in staffing as a done deal and in a manner that "did not invite bargaining," she wrote.
State law requires that employers of union-represented workers give notice and provide an opportunity for collective bargaining when they want to change wages, hours or working conditions, Boedecker noted.
"I find that the employer did refuse to bargain about reducing overtime opportunities, reducing equipment staffing levels, and allowing firefighter bargaining unit work to be performed by employees from other jurisdictions," she wrote in the decision. "I also find that the employer failed to negotiate in a meaningful way before unilaterally making those changes."
The city has until Thursday to appeal the decision. If it doesn't appeal, it must pay lost overtime wages to firefighters. The city is calculating how much that would be. The union would be responsible for doling out the money to members. Gagnon said they haven't determined how that would happen.
The hearing examiner also instructed the city to return fire department operations to the way they were, including allowing the firefighters to fill shifts using overtime. It's not clear how this will affect the city's budget next year.
The fire department was overspending the overtime budget because there aren't enough firefighters and paramedics to cover all the aid car and engine units, Gagnon said. The department is understaffed and too many people have been promoted to jobs that take them out of fire trucks and into desks, he said.
The union represents 175 Everett Fire Department employees, including firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics.
Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or email@example.com