OCEAN CITY — A mid-December meeting with a labor arbitrator resulted in no real movement in the impasse between the Town of Ocean City and its local firefighter and paramedic union over a proposed shift schedule change.
The clock expired last February 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 contract negotiations broke down over the town’s position to eliminate the paramedics’ long-standing 24-hour shifts, which was considered a deal-breaker for the IAFF.
Most Ocean City paramedics work in 24-hour shifts, followed by 72 hours off. However, citing a variety of reasons, including potential missed calls, delayed responses and national trends, the town has remained adamant about phasing out the 24-72 shift rotation in favor of an alternative 12-hour shift or some hybrid of the two. The schedule impasse quickly became a point of contention for the union, forcing it to walk away from the bargaining table last winter.
The issue came to a head in June when the IAFF announced it would seek a referendum on the municipal election ballot, allowing the city’s electorate to decide if the union should have the same binding interest arbitration afforded to its police union brethren. The petition effort was launched but it did not gain enough signatures for the issue to be placed before voters last November.
Town and union officials met again in early December in an attempt to reach a final agreement. Some progress was made, but the two sides remained at an impasse. The two sides met again on Dec. 14 with M. David Vaughn, an experienced labor arbitrator, in an effort to have him mediate the issues and work toward a final agreement. Both efforts failed to resolve the impasse over the shift rotation changes and the two sides appear to be as far apart on the issue as they have ever been, according to a statement from IAFF 4269 President Ryan Whittington this week.
“Unfortunately, the effort was not successful and the town and the IAFF remain apart and at odds on issues fundamental to the negotiations,” he said. “The substance of the mediation is confidential. The IAFF’s position on those fundamental issues, however, is not.”
Whittington said the union continues to maintain the current 24-72 rotation is in the best interest of public safety and the health and well-being of the union members.
“The IAFF continues to believe that the current shift alignment of 24 hours on, followed by 72 hours off, is the best schedule for delivering fire and emergency medical services to the citizens of, and visitors to, Ocean City,” he said. “It is likely the most common schedule for delivering fire and emergency medical services because it is the schedule that delivers well-prepared and well-rested personnel. It also delivers operational stability.”
While public safety remains paramount in the debate, Whittington asserted a move away from the 24-72 rotation would put an undue burden on the paramedics and firefighters.
“There is no good cause to abandon the schedule as the town desires,” he said. “To abandon the schedule and implement shorter shifts will result in operational issues and will also have a significant impact on the lives of the IAFF’s members.”
Whittington said the IAFF has sought to compromise on the issue in order to reach a final agreement. For example, the IAFF has considered a means to approach a change from 24-hour shifts and a means to mitigate the impact of such a change. The IAFF has considered a trial period for the change and has also considered changing to shorter shifts only during the summer months. Nevertheless, the town and the union remain at an impasse on the key scheduling issue.
“Thus far, the IAFF has not found common ground with the town,” he said. “A resolution does not appear imminent. Nevertheless, the IAFF shall work in good faith for a resolution that will continue to deliver the best fire and emergency services possible to our community.”
For his part, Mayor Rick Meehan said this week the 24-72 shift rotation is only one element of the larger contract and the town has shown a willingness to work with the union on a resolution of the issues.
“Both the town and the IAFF made efforts late last year to reach a contract agreement and both sides compromised their initial positions concerning a number of matters,” he said. “In fact, many areas of compromise were reached by the parties.”
Meehan said the town has shown a willingness to compromise throughout the process and said it was disingenuous for the union to suggest it was the only party willing to bend.
“Any suggestion that only the IAFF compromised is untrue,” he said. “The town will continue to bargain in good faith with the IAFF and it is my sincere hope that an agreement can be reached prior to Feb. 28, the mandatory close of the bargaining period.”