OCEAN CITY — The Ocean City Mayor and Council on Monday ratified a new contract deemed a “placeholder” representing the last, best and final offer for the resort’s Fire/EMS union, although there appears to be a thaw somewhat in the impasse over proposed shift changes.
On Feb. 29, the clock expired on negotiations between the town and the Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, or IAFF Local 4269, on a new three-year contract, resulting in the town’s “last, best and final offer” essentially becoming the new contract by default. The negotiations broke down in late February over the town’s unwavering position of eliminating the paramedics’ long-standing 24 hour shifts.
Currently, most paramedics work in 24-hour shifts, followed by 72 hours off. However, citing a variety of reasons, including potential missed calls or delayed responses, the town is adamant about the elimination of the 24-72 shift rotation in favor of an alternative 12-hour shift or some hybrid of the two.
Eliminating the 24-72 schedule became a point of contention in the negotiations for a new contract of the IAFF 4269, forcing the union to walk away from the bargaining table. When the deadline for a new contract expired at midnight on Feb. 29, the town’s “best and last” offer became the new contract effective July 1, although the complete elimination of the 24-72 shift rotation would not be implemented until October 2017.
As a result, the IAFF 4269 filed a formal unfair labor practice complaint against the town of Ocean City over the shift schedule issue. About a week later, the town fired off a strongly-worded letter to Labor Commissioner Buck Mann outlining why the complaint should be dismissed.
No formal action has been taken on the union’s unfair labor practice complaint and for a while it appeared the two sides were as far apart as they ever were, but it appears the town and union have started talking again about the impasse over the 24-72 shift rotation. In the meantime, with fiscal year 2017 budget work sessions beginning this week, the town needed to move forward this week with a resolution ratifying the contract representing the last, best and final offer.
On Monday, the Mayor and Council passed the resolution, but not before a contentious debate about the timing of the vote. At the outset of the debate on Monday, City Solicitor Guy Ayres said he should probably read the resolution representing the last, best and final offer into the record because there has been a lot of misconception about whether there was a collective bargaining agreement between the town and the union.
“This resolution makes it clear,” he said. “We did not have a collective bargaining agreement. We have a budget process upcoming and there are monetary issues. The IAFF rejected the town’s last, best and final offer.”
However, passing the resolution this week does not necessarily set in stone all components of the contract including the shift configurations. Ayres urged the Mayor and Council to pass the resolution in order to have something in place as budget deliberations get underway. If there is a break in the impasse, a new resolution can be passed, but the Mayor and Council were on the clock to get at least the last and best offer on the books.
“Nothing prevents the parties from trying to reach an agreement,” he said. “It’s not my job, but I urge both sides to do that. We can always pass another resolution, but we need to pass something by April 15.”
Councilman Matt James, also a volunteer firefighter, said there had been some discussions between the town and the union and held out hope some agreement could be reached on the shift rotation impasse. In fact, there was a meeting on Monday afternoon between representatives from both parties, including Councilman Doug Cymek and City Manager Doug Miller. Councilman Wayne Hartman questioned why the entire council wasn’t included in that meeting. He also agreed with James the passage of the resolution should be tabled if there was some hope of breaking the impasse over the shift rotation issue.
“I understand there was a meeting today,” he said. “I agree maybe this is not the night to do this thing. Anybody want to shed light on that meeting and why we weren’t invited.”
Cymek explained he was approached by union members late Sunday about a meeting during which the IAFF wanted to present its reasoning behind sticking adamantly behind the 24-72 rotation. Cymek said the meeting was projected to last 30 to 40 minutes, but went on for over four hours, which was why the Mayor and Council wasn’t briefed on it prior to Monday night’s meeting.
“The IAFF wanted to offer some opinions and we came to listen,” he said. “It was an effort to break the impasse. There weren’t any negotiations, but it was more of an informational meeting. I think we both walked away with a better understanding of each other’s position.”
IAFF President Ryan Whittington was not at the Monday afternoon meeting, but he agreed there could now be some wiggle room in the negotiations.
“I feel confident in the trust we have with the council,” he said. “I feel confident it we present ideas, you’ll see us move forward and break this impasse.”
Cymek said Monday afternoon’s meeting was an informal presentation and did not include any negotiations.
“We didn’t go there to negotiate,” he said. “The negotiations ended Feb. 29. We made it clear we can’t reopen the negotiations, they’re closed. I am hoping we can get this back on track. I think we can work through this and as the city solicitor said, we can pass a new resolution. I think it’s doable.”
Hartman said as long as the two sides were meeting, there was no reason to rush to pass the resolution on Monday. He suggested continued discussions in advance of the Mayor and Council’s next work session on April 12, which would meet the April 15 deadline to ratify a new contract.
“I’m willing to invest another week if we think we can get this done,” he said. “There may be a chance for progress.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said no one on the council should feel dissed because they weren’t included in the informal meeting between the parties on Monday afternoon and said as long as the discussions were productive, there was hope some agreement could be reached. Martin also reminded his colleagues it was the union that broke down the contract negotiations.
“We were dismissed,” he said. “We got up and left because we were told there was nothing left to talk about. We’re being very upfront and honest and the council is up here listening. To say we can fix this in a week, I’m not sure. I think we need to pass this and keep working together. We can pass another resolution if we reach some agreement.”
James continued to push for tabling the resolution to allow informal discussions to continue.
“If there is light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t think this is the night to do this,” he said.
Mayor Rick Meehan also suggested the two sides continue to meet and expressed confidence some agreement could be reached, but did not give any inclination the town was willing to budge on eliminating the 24-72 rotation.
“It’s unfortunate we were unable to reach an agreement with the IAFF,” he said. “It’s not the way I expected negotiations to go and I don’t think anybody else did. It all comes down to that one issue and that’s the shifts. If the union is willing to reconsider something other than the 24 hours shift, maybe we can do it. Is the union willing to move away from 24 hour shifts?”
Regardless of how the informal discussions were going, Meehan said it was not practical to think something could get done before the April 12 work session.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to open negotiations and get the attorneys together in a week,” he said. “The Mayor and Council are handling the labor process carefully and are amenable to doing that, but I think we need to pass this resolution tonight.”
Again, Meehan said the town was willing to continue to work with the union on the some sort of hybrid shift rotation for the paramedics.
“We learned a little about each other along the way and we have the utmost respect for the IAFF,” he said. “We encourage them to come back to the table and talk to us about something other than the 24-hour shift.”
James voiced concern if the resolution was passed, the negotiations over the shift alternatives would break down and likely just go away. However, Meehan said he was confident there could be some breakthrough regardless of the council vote on the resolution.
“I’d be surprised if that happened,” he said. “I have a lot of faith in the Mayor and Council and the IAFF not closing the book on this, but passing this allows us to keep moving forward with the business of the town of Ocean City.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said passing the resolution merely got the best and final offer on the books formally and reiterated a new resolution could be passed at a later date if there was some headway on the shift rotation impasse.
“The city manager is presenting the budget tomorrow [Tuesday] and we have budget meetings for the next two weeks, and here we are on April 4 still talking about it,” he said. “If we pass the resolution, we can put these best and final numbers in the budget as a placeholder of sorts. Without passing it, we have nothing to do on.”
Dare said the contract’s impact on the budget wasn’t entirely certain, but having some numbers to work with would ease the budget process.
“If the two sides can agree on changes, I’m not even sure if it would have an impact on the budget, but we can’t kick this down the road any further,” he said. “This does what we need right now. This doesn’t change what we do next week or the week after or down the road. It’s now the 11th hour and we need to move forward with this.”
The elimination of the 24-72 shift is set to be implemented in October 2017. Councilmember Mary Knight agreed the resolution could be passed and the negotiations could continue.
“As Councilman Dare put it, it’s a placeholder,” she said. “We have until October 2017 to come up with a schedule. All we are voting for tonight is this placeholder.”
With that said, the resolution was passed by a vote of 5-2 with James and Hartman opposed.