OCEAN CITY — The Town of Ocean City and its firefighter-paramedic union reached an agreement Tuesday on a new contract that somewhat reflects a compromise on the controversial shift change, but at least one of the parties is not entirely pleased with all aspects of the new deal.
Last year, the deadline on the town’s new contract with the Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, of Local 4269, expired without an agreement on a variety of issues, most notably a change in the scheduling of shifts for the resort’s paramedics. With the deadline approaching last February, the IAFF 4269 negotiation team walked away when the town and its fire department administrators would not budge on a provision in the proposed contract that would eliminate the paramedics current shift schedule.
As a result, the town’s “last, best and final” offer essentially became the de facto contract by default as negotiations continued on a long-term deal. That three-year contract was ratified by the Local IAFF 4269 late on Tuesday although the union members are still not pleased with the changes to the shift rotations included in the deal.
Most Ocean City paramedics currently 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 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 contract agreed upon by the parties near the deadline means effective in October the scheduling will feature two 10-hour day shifts followed by two 14-hour night shifts, followed by four days off.
The approved contract will be valid for three years, expiring in June 2019, and does include other components. For example, it provides for employees to be advanced one step and awarded a 1.5-percent Cost Of Living Allowance (COLA) on July 1, 2017 and again on July 1, 2018. The agreement also includes the creation of a deferred retirement option program and other changes to address time periods to adjust grievances and the imposition of flu vaccinations, among others.
Mayor Rick Meehan on Wednesday said the agreed-upon contract represents a long-term agreement that will allow both parties to move forward.
“We are pleased to receive news that the IAFF has ratified the contract offer presented by the Mayor and Council,” the mayor’s statement reads. “After more than a year of bargaining, it is now time to move forward without looking back.”
In the spirit of moving on, the IAFF 4269 membership on Tuesday approved the contract on the table, but did not necessarily commit to not looking back.
‘The members of Local 4269 do not believe that this is a good course for fire department operations,” the IAFF 4269 statement reads. “However, the members of Local 4269 recognize that the dispute over this issue, which has persisted for more than a year, must be resolved.”
Meehan said while the ratified contract does adjust the shift rotations for the resort’s paramedics, it also includes an enhanced salary and benefits package that should make the arrangement palatable for union members.
“The ratified offer establishes a structured path of salary advancement that our employees deserve as they continue their careers as paramedic/firefighters for the town of Ocean City,” the statement reads. “The offer, as accepted, also provides wage steps COLAs necessary to keep the compensation package for our valued employees in line with other comparable departments.”
Meehan acknowledged the move away from the 24-7 shift rotation was deal-breaker for the union starting this time last year and throughout the many months since, but essentially promised the town would continue to work with the IAFF 4269 to ensure the transition is a smooth one.
“This new contract does bring change to the department as it establishes a new schedule for our employees in order to meet the demands for the service we now provide in 2017,” the statement reads. “We know the change can be challenging, but we are committed to working closely with the IAFF and are confident that we will make a smooth transition to this new schedule.”
Meehan said the ratified contract allows the parties to move forward after months of often tense negotiations.
“We thank the leadership, bargaining team and members of the IAFF that worked with the Mayor and Council throughout this long negotiation process,” the statement reads. “As I have often said, good things take time and I think together we have put both our employees and the town in an excellent position to move forward.”
However, while IAFF 4269 did approve the contract as presented on Tuesday, the union is not entirely pleased with the shift rotation change and ratified the deal only in the interest of putting the often contentious negotiation process behind them.
“The membership of Local 4269 has ratified the agreement begrudgingly on terms that do not do justice to the changes insisted upon by the town, and after a course of negotiating by the town that did not reflect fair compromise, but it is time to move on,” the statement reads.
Throughout the year-long negotiations, the IAFF 4269 continued to assert the current shift alignment of 24 hours on and 72 hours off represented the best schedule for delivering fire and emergency medical services to the residents and visitors to Ocean City and that position has not changed despite the contract approved on Tuesday.
“The transition to 10s and 14s moves the department in the wrong direction,” the statement reads. “The present shift alignment of one 24-hour shift followed by three days off is the shift alignment used by the majority of the professional fire departments in Maryland and beyond. It provides for operational continuity. It allows for personnel to recover after a shift and it is a shift alignment that has served Ocean City well. … The move to 10s and 14s will likely have adverse consequences that will outweigh any benefit. Operational continuity will be disrupted, the ability to recruit full- and part-time personnel will be impaired and overtime costs will increase.”
The union’s statement suggests the town proposed alterations to the shift rotation were motivated by improving response times and eliminating delays, but in the end, the town simply stood its ground on the elimination of the 24-7 rotation.
“Nonetheless, from the outset of negotiations, the town insisted on a change,” the statement reads. “At first, the town insisted that a change was necessary to improve response times. Later, the town simply insisted on the change.”
With the clock ticking on the deadline for negotiations on Tuesday, the IAFF 4269 did ratify the contract on the table, but the union left open the door on a continued effort to seek binding interest arbitration. After last year’s breakdown in talks, union officials reportedly began collecting signatures for a petition drive aimed at adding binding interest arbitration to their current collective bargaining rights.
“The members of the Local 4269 shall continue with their core goal: to serve the residents of and visitors to Ocean City with the best possible emergency services and the members of the Local 4269 shall continue to advocate for the best operational practices for the fire department,” the statement reads. “So too will Local 4269 advocate for a better system of labor relations including binding interest arbitration to improve the relationship between employees and the town and improve the process and outcomes of negotiations in the future.”