OCEAN CITY — While the resort remains at an impasse with its paramedics over proposed shift changes, the local Fire/EMS union this week began a petition drive to put a referendum question for binding interest arbitration on the election ballot this November.
In late February, 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 over the town’s position on 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 remains adamant about eliminating the 24-72 shift rotation in favor of an alternative 12-hour shift or some hybrid of the two. Eliminating the 24-hour shift became a point of contention in the negotiations for a new contract for the IAFF 4269, forcing the union to walk away from the bargaining table.
The IAFF 4269 has since filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the Town of Ocean City over the shift schedule issue. No formal action has yet been taken on the unfair labor practice complaint and the two sides appear as far apart as they have ever been on the issue. Part of the problem is the IAFF 4269 does not have the same binding interest arbitration enjoyed by the OCPD and its union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) 10.
However, the IAFF 4269 this week began collecting signatures in support of a petition to amend the town’s charter to provide binding interest arbitration for fire and emergency medical services personnel. If the union is successful in collecting the requisite number of signatures of qualified Ocean City voters, a referendum question could appear on the ballot for the general election on November 8, or possibly even a special election. IAFF Local 4269 President Ryan Whittington outlined the union’s plan to put the binding arbitration question to the city’s voters in a statement released on Wednesday.
“This week, Local 4269 will begin collecting signatures in support of a petition to amend the charter of the Town of Ocean City to provide for binding interest arbitration for fire and emergency medical services personnel,” the statement reads. “The amendment would direct the council to provide, by ordinance, for labor disputes to be referred to a neutral arbitrator. Local 4269 needs 20 percent of qualified voters to sign the petition to have the measure placed on the ballot. We encourage all Ocean City voters to support the petition.”
According to the statement, binding interest arbitration will help avoid labor disputes such as the current conflict over the proposed changes to the 24-72 shift rotation. It is a tool to resolve and settle labor disputes when negotiations break down, as was the case this winter. A neutral arbitrator would hear from both labor and management and determine what terms should be implemented, according to the IAFF statement. The neutral arbitrator would be required to “take into account the financial condition of the town and the reasonable interest of the employees and the town relating to the terms and conditions of employment.”
“The benefit of binding interest arbitration is that is tends to encourage labor and management to work to find common ground and to resolve disputes on their own,” Whittington said in the statement. “This has been the experience of Ocean City police personnel who are represented by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 10. While the town and FOP 10 have experience significant conflict in past negotiations, they have always managed to resolve their disputes and reach an agreement without resorting to interest arbitration.”
Whittington said while there is hope for a resolution to the current rift over the proposed changes to the 24-72 shift rotation for paramedics, approving binding interest arbitration through the referendum process will ensure similar conflicts don’t arise in the future.
“The current conflict between Local 4269 and the town does not need to recur,” he said. “If the amendment passes, in the future we will have prompt resolution to unresolved issues through negotiations. That is as it should be.”
In the meantime, the current conflict over the proposed elimination of the 24-72 shift rotation remains at an impasse although there could be a hearing on the union’s unfair labor practice forthcoming. However, the tenor of the union’s statement appears to suggest an amicable solution is not likely.
“Unfortunately, the current conflict continues,” the IAFF statement reads. “The town has decided to unilaterally implement its proposals to upend the fire department by operating the department like no other comparable department. We continue to challenge the town’s course.”
Whittington said there has been some movement on the union’s unfair labor practice complaint.
“Local 4269 is preparing to proceed to a hearing on its unfair labor practice charge against the town,” he said. “The arbitrators to hear the charge have been selected although no hearing dates have yet been set. We are confident that we will prevail in the proceeding. The town’s proposals are extreme and reflect an unwillingness to negotiate in good faith.”
While that process takes its course, the IAFF 4269 is moving forward with its petition drive to add a referendum question for binding interest arbitration on the ballot in November.
“In the meantime, Local 4269 will be out on the streets, on the Boardwalk and on the beach asking for voters to support the proposed amendment,” said Whittington in the statement. “It is a wise reform that will ensure the fire department thrives by minimizing conflicts and by facilitating a productive and positive relationship with its personnel.”