OCEAN CITY — The deadline for a new labor contract between the Town of Ocean City and its firefighters union expired at midnight on Monday with no break in the impasse over the proposed work schedules, resulting in the town’s “best and last offer” becoming the new contract by default.
Since late January, the Town of Ocean City has been in negotiations for a new contract with the Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, IAFF Local 4269. The current contract expires on June 30 and the two sides have been working on a new deal that includes a variety of elements, but the stumbling block that ultimately derailed the negotiations was a proposed change in the scheduling for the resort’s paramedics.
Currently, the paramedics work in 24-hour shifts, followed by 72 hours off. However, citing potential fatigue and hindered decision-making in critical situations, slower response times on late night and early morning calls and even a handful of missed or dropped calls over the last few years, the town remains adamant about moving away from the 24-hour shifts followed by 72 hours off, or 24-72 in negotiation parlance. Instead, the town was pushing for 12-hour shifts with mixed days off, or some sort of hybrid that would address the perceived fatigue issue and ensure the highest level of service for residents and visitors.
However, the union countered the 24-72 scheduling system has been in place for years and has not contributed to slower response times, pointing out the fire department’s remarkable record. The union also countered the seasoned veteran paramedics have become accustomed to the 24-72 scheduling and changing it now would disrupt family lives and schedules, for example.
With the clock ticking on the midnight deadline for a new deal on Monday, the two sides could not agree on the scheduling issue. As a result, the current contract will remain in place until June 30, at which time the town’s “best and final offer,” including the abolition of the 24-72 scheduling plan, effective October of 2017, will essentially become the new contract.
The proposed contract contained other elements, including a proposed step and COLA increase and an early drop program for veteran paramedics. However, those elements never made the table as the negotiations broke down over the scheduling issue. Mayor Rick Meehan called the impasse disappointing.
“Unfortunately, we were not able to reach an agreement before midnight last night,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate. Our goal was to reach an agreement with the union we could all live with. I’ve sat through a number of union negotiations and we’ve always been able to come to an agreement. In this case, we were not and that’s very unfortunate.”
Despite the stalemate, the mayor said there was no animosity over the failed negotiations.
“We hold the men and women of the paramedics division in the highest regard and that hasn’t changed because of this,” he said. “They are a dedicated, emotional and efficient crew, but the Mayor and Council feel strongly we need to move away from the 24-hour shifts.”
While the default “best and last” contract includes eliminating the 24-hour shifts, it also includes the proposed step and COLA salary increases, which will cost the town roughly $250,000 in salary increases over the life of the contract, along with the drop program for veteran paramedics and other elements included voluntarily by the town. However, the scheduling change was enough to derail the negotiations for the union, which late last week hinted at a potential unfair labor practice charge.
IAFF Local 4269 President Ryan Whittington said late Tuesday eliminating the 24-72 scheduling was a deal breaker for the union.
“It’s not about the money and the long phase-in,” he said. “It’s about the health and safety of our firefighter/paramedics. Our safety is more important than money. The town will establish a task force to look at Boardwalk performers. You would think they would want to study and survey their employees as to what’s best for them.”
What’s best for the paramedics is at the center of the issue. The union has stated over and over the 24-72 scheduling plan is time-tested and the best of the paramedics.
“These shifts have worked for the department for over 20 years,” Whittington said in an interview last week. “Our firefighter/paramedics do an excellent job and have saved many, many lives. The 24-hour shifts are seen across the country and known as best practices among fire departments. Changing it would be a detriment to the department and the ability to staff with excellent providers that could affect the great delivery we provide every day.”
In a letter dated to the town’s labor attorney dated Feb. 25, attorney David Gray Wright, who represents the IAFF Local 4269, asserted the town is misguided in its efforts to eliminate the 24-hour shifts.
“The town claims too that EMS calls are increasing and that, in turn, is increasing the fatigue of the personnel,” the letter reads. “However, the town admits that fatigue has not caused any safety incident that it is aware of. Its personnel, in point of fact, are rested. The town’s proposed solution to fatigued personnel is to fatigue them more often and more consistently by keeping them up all night, night in and night out.”
On Tuesday, Ocean City Fire Department Deputy Chief Chuck Barton, who oversees the EMS division, said eliminating the 24-72 scheduling was in the best interest of the residents and visitors, along with the paramedics.
“When we began contemplating the change, a lot of thought went into the process,” he said. “We want to do what’s very best for our residents and visitors and one of our main concerns was the 24-hour scheduling. When people are awake for an extended period of time, fatigue sets in and cognitive performance declines. Many safety-sensitive professions have restrictions on length of shifts including pilots, truckers and nurses. Around 80 percent of our calls are medical calls and the paramedics have to make life-preserving decisions. That’s the primary reason for this change.”
Meehan said the union’s claim most fire departments are using the 24-72 scheduling plan was unfounded and pointed to a handful around the state that have gone away from the 24-hour shifts including Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Harford County, for example. The union counters Salisbury, Snow Hill, Berlin and most shore departments use the 24/72 program. The mayor said a handful of incidents in recent years was the catalyst for moving away from the 24-hour shifts.
“We have instances where calls were missed,” he said. “That is something we are trying to avoid. Nothing drastic or critical has happened to date, but we don’t want to look back and say we should have done this. They do a great job with the 24-hour shifts, but we firmly believe with the 12-hour shifts.”
Meehan said it was disingenuous for the union to suggest it was taken by surprise by the town’s desire to move away from the 24-hour shifts for the paramedics. He said the idea was first broached as early as 2010 and in 2013, the union voted to have newly hired employees available for any shift that was scheduled regardless of the length of time. Meehan said about one-third of the paramedics are already working shifts other than 24 hours.
“We made it clear this was the direction we were heading,” he said. “This wasn’t an arbitrary decision.”
Meehan pointed to five incidents of significantly delayed responses over the last few years including two in 2015, one in 2013 and two in 2012. However, Whittington responded the stated goal of the department is to have a response time under two minutes 24 hours a day. Town statistics show in 2015 there were 5,927 calls and in 99.86 percent of those calls, the response time was under two minutes. He said the only thing keeping that total away from 100 percent were technology glitches that played a part in the delays. It is important to note the two-minute response time includes the time between receiving the call and getting the crew out the door and not the time before the call and the arrival at the incident. Naturally, traffic and other variables change the response times from call to arrival at the scene.
Another concern articulated by Whittington has been the timing of the 12-hour shift change. The town’s proposal included changing shifts at 5 p.m. or 7 p.m. According to the data on emergency calls for service for 2015, those hours were the busiest times of day for emergency services, complicating the shift change process and potentially jeopardizing response times.
The union has said the move away from the 24-72 schedule was a deal-breaker for a variety of reasons. The paramedics have pointed out the system has been in place for decades and represents the best opportunity to maintain low response times. The union also claims changing to 12-hour shifts now would disrupt the private schedules and down time for the paramedics.
However, Meehan countered on Tuesday while the new contract would have taken effect on June 30, 2016, the elimination of the 24-hour shifts would not be implemented until October 2017.
“The implementation was extended in our best and final offer to October 2017,” he said. “That’s a year and a half away. We want to give them a year and a half to implement the change and adjust and adapt to it. It’s not like this is going into effect in three months.”
There is still ample opportunity for the two sides to reach an amenable agreement. As part of the labor agreement, a Labor Management Committee has been established to act as a mediator of sorts between the parties with an agenda set by the IAFF. The committee is scheduled to meet on March 11 and there is still opportunity to explore alternatives.
“We’re hoping to get the shift change issue on that agenda,” said Meehan. “We are open to discussion and maybe there is some better options to be explored, such as 10-hour or 14-hour shifts, but we are not going back to the 24-hour shifts. It’s unfortunate we’re here and the last thing we want to be is in conflict with city employees.”
The union plans to submit an unfair labor practice complaint to the town as a result of the negotiation process.