OCEAN CITY — After years of debate, a successful referendum last November and a lengthy negotiation period last month, a divided council on Monday approved a new contract for the town’s firefighter-paramedic union, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
Way back in February 2016, the clock expired on negotiations between the town and the Career Firefighter Paramedics Union of Ocean City, or IAFF 4269, on a new three-year contract, resulting in the town’s best and final offer becoming the new contract by default. Those negotiations broke down over the town’s unwavering position on the elimination of the paramedics’ long-standing 24-hour shifts, which had become a deal-breaker for the IAFF.
By way of background, at that time, most Ocean City paramedics worked 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 rotation or some hybrid of the two.
When the negotiations broke down and the town’s last and best offer became the new three-year contract by default, the new shift rotation did eliminate the 24-hour shifts, but a compromise of sorts resulted in a hybrid schedule with different shifts. Unsatisfied with that result, the IAFF successfully petitioned to referendum the right to collectively bargain on the new contract with binding interest arbitration if a similar impasse was reached. In November, the town’s electorate resounding approved binding interest arbitration for the firefighter-paramedics, a perk enjoyed, but never utilized by the police department for years.
With the successful referendum in hand, the IAFF entered negotiations with the town this spring on a new three-year contract. That contract, which did not have to resort to arbitration to resolve, was reached by the two sides and headed to the full Mayor and Council for ratification on Monday. However, what appeared on the surface to be a mere formality turned out to be another donnybrook with a divided council narrowly approving the IAFF contract with a 4-3 vote. Again, the sticking point for two of the three nay votes was the re-appearance of the 24-hour shifts, which was negotiated back into the contract as part of a hybrid shift rotation.
“I support our firefighters and paramedics and hold them in high esteem,” said Councilman Dennis Dare on Monday. “In all good consciousness, I cannot support paramedics working in 24-hour shifts. I can’t vote to support this contract.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight agreed and said she also could not support the IAFF contract on the table with at least some of the 24-hour shifts back in the rotation.
“I also agree with Councilman Dare,” she said. “No research or data supports human beings working in 24-hour shifts. I can’t support this contract because of that.”
Councilman Matt James, who served on the town’s negotiating team, said he could not support the contract on the table, not merely because of the 24-hour shifts, but because he didn’t believe it represented the best interest of the town.
“I also can’t support this for different reasons,” he said. “They are not proactive. They don’t go out looking for sick people or looking for fires. They are reactive when the calls come in. I know this contract could have been reached with a significantly lower cost. It came it an around $800,000 and I think it could have been done for $300,000.”
Councilman John Gehrig said if the council was clearly divided on the proposed contract, maybe the entire negotiating process was flawed.
“I wonder if this is the best way to negotiate,” he said. “We have three councilmembers who have now said they are not for it. I wonder if this should be negotiated right out here in front.”
Gehrig said the entire process felt like it was handled by independent lawyers and not those who would be affected by the outcome the most.
“We’re certainly not comfortable with the contract as it is written, but the lawyers did the negotiating,” he said. “We work with our firefighters and paramedics like partners, like family, but this almost feels like we’re getting a divorce. The fact that we’re split on this shows the negotiation process is broken.”
At that point, it was uncertain how the vote was going to go. Dare, Knight and James had already said they could not support the new contract, but others on the council had not yet played their hands. Gehrig asked what would happen if the contract was not ratified on Monday. City Solicitor Guy Ayres explained the IAFF contract was intrinsically tied to the ongoing fiscal year 2020 budget deliberations.
“If the resolution fails, we don’t have a collective bargaining agreement,” he said. “The city manager presents a budget based on the terms of this agreement. He wouldn’t know what to set the budget at if we don’t have a collective bargaining agreement.”
Ayres supposed if the contract was not ratified, it could go back to renegotiation, but questioned what could be gained if the 24-hour shifts were truly a deal-breaker.
“If this is a stand-off over the 24-hour shifts, the I don’t know what you’re going to bargain for,” he said. “I’ll check with our labor lawyers, but if that is the impasse, I don’t know what different agreement you can reach.”
Councilman Mark Paddack, who served on the town’s negotiation team and drew from his experience with negotiation collective bargaining agreements for the police department, said he was satisfied with the IAFF deal on the table.
“I’m confident in this contract,” he said. “It is 49 pages long and it took five long meeting days. I can tell you for the 28 years of my career, I wasn’t home with my family on weekends. I was working. The firefighters and paramedics over here will have to work some weekends. We’re a resort town and the police and the public works people all work weekends. That’s how we got to the 24-hour shifts.”
Paddack said the alternative to reaching the agreement with the IAFF was hiring more personnel, the salaries and benefits for whom would not offset the cost of the contract on the table.
“This is a hybrid,” he said. “It’s not all 24-hour shifts. It’s a hybrid schedule to fill the personnel needs on weekends. The recommendation was to hire 18 new personnel, but I can tell you that’s not going to happen. I wish we could have given you everything you asked for, but that’s not going to happen. These things need to be done incrementally and you got a big bite of it with this contract.”
For his part, Gehrig said he supported the firefighter-paramedics and could get behind the contract on the table, but continued to question the process.
“They are our partners and our friends, I just think the process is broken,” he said. “We had three councilmembers on the negotiating team and even they can’t agree.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca, who served on the town’s negotiation team, said he supported the contract and the shift rotations it included because they were formulated and endorsed by two fire chiefs who sat in on the process.
“I strongly support this resolution and both sides support it,” he said. “What did it for me more than anything is that we had two fire chiefs on the team and they both support the schedule.”
However, James pointed out the fire chiefs that served in the negotiation process were predisposed to adding 24-hours shifts back into the rotation.
“The chiefs were able to make that schedule because they were given a directive,” he said. “If you tell someone what you want the result to be, that’s what you end up with. That’s what happened here. The town is scared to go to collective bargaining and I don’t think they wanted to either.”
In the end, the council voted 4-3 to ratify the contract with Dare, Knight and James opposed, and DeLuca, Gehrig, Paddack and Council President Lloyd Martin in favor. The members of the council who served on he negotiation team signed the contract along with representatives of the IAFF, although the signing ceremony was somewhat solemn and didn’t include the typical smiling and glad-handing associated with the event.
For his part, IAFF President Ryan Whittington thanked the majority of the council for ratifying the contract.
“Thank you for agreeing to sign this contract,” he said. “The last thing we need before the summer season is turmoil with the council.”
In terms of the 24-hour shifts, Whittington said it has been an ongoing issue since the last contract negotiation ended in an impasse and suggested an open dialogue to resolve it one way or the other.
“Four years ago, I came before you and said the schedule wasn’t working,” he said. “We have commissions and task forces for everything. Let’s have a task force or a commission on the firefighter-paramedic schedule and let’s have an open dialogue. We are more than willing to do that. Let’s not let the signing of this contract end the conversation. Let’s keep the discussion going and get it done.”