OCEAN CITY — An amended collective bargaining agreement between Ocean City and its firefighter-paramedic union was reached this week with both sides making concessions in light of the ongoing COVID-19 situation.
Through the negotiation process for the amended union contract, the Career Firefighter Paramedics Union of Ocean City, or IAFF 4269, agreed to forego a couple of step increases in the wage scale for members over the life of the new deal, resulting in significant savings for the town facing budget uncertainties because of the real and anticipated impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In return, the Mayor and Council agreed to return the firefighter-paramedic schedule back to the somewhat controversial 24-72 shift rotation. For years, the firefighter-paramedics worked 24-hour shifts followed by 72 hours off. However, citing a variety of reasons including potentially missed calls, delayed responses and national trends, the town several years back was adamant about phasing out the 24-72 rotation in favor of an alternative 12-hour rotation or some hybrid of the two.
In the years since, the IAFF members have been working in the hybrid shift rotation through renewed union contracts with the town. This year, however, with COVID-19 casting significant real and potential budget impacts on Ocean City, the IAFF approached town officials about an amended give-and-take collective bargaining agreement that included union members foregoing certain scheduled step increases in the wage scale in exchange for the favored 24-72 shift rotation.
“When COVID struck and it looked like the virus was really going to impact the town negatively, IAFF President Ryan Whittington approached me and said the members might forego the step increase due July 1 if we went back to the old schedule,” City Manager Doug Miller told the full Mayor and Council on Monday. “We made a counter-offer and the union agreed to it.”
As a result, the proposal on the table on Monday included a two-year extension of the existing contract through June 2024, essentially making it a five-year deal. The IAFF members would forego a step increase on the wage scale due on July 1 of this year and one of the two step increases due on July 1, 2021. The step increases would be spread out and made up on the back end of the contract in 2022 and 2023.
The concessions made by the IAFF in the amended contract would result in significant savings almost immediately as the town deals with the budget uncertainties related to the ongoing COVID-19 situation. The trade-off for the union is a return to the favored 24-72 shift rotation for firefighter-paramedics. However, not all were in favor of the return to 24-72 despite the fiscal concessions made by the union.
“Respectfully, I am going to have to vote against this,” said Council Secretary Mary Knight. “I am very happy they’re going to give up some of the increases, but I, for one, don’t think the 24-72 is a good work schedule. I have voted against it in the past and I just want to be consistent. I do appreciate what they’re doing.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said he also appreciated the concessions offered by the IAFF.
“I support the paramedics,” he said. “We begin by hiring the best of the best, then we give them the best training and we’ve made them the best facilities and buy the best equipment.”
However, Dare said while he appreciates the job the firefighter-paramedics do and the dangers they face day in and day out.
“I respect the job that the paramedics do for the town,” he said. “They don’t know when they leave for the beach on a call if they’re going to find a young child who has drowned in the surf. They face danger every time they go on a domestic call when there have been injuries. They pull out of the firehouse for an accident and they don’t know if it’s going to be a motorcycle hitting a pickup truck at a high rate of speed.”
However, Dare said he has been opposed to the 24-72 shift rotation in the past and could not support it now, despite the fiscal concessions made by the union.
“What they do is amazing, but this 24-hour schedule is unhealthy and potentially dangerous for both the paramedics and the patient,” he said. “I will not be voting for this amendment.”
Councilman Mark Paddack said he could support the return to the 24-72 shift rotation for the firefighter-paramedics.
“The standing operation for the firefighter-paramedics has been 24-72,” he said. “I heard Council Secretary Mary Knight’s and Councilman Dennis Dare’s comments and I respect them. Having been on the negotiating team through the process, I support the change the IAFF has requested from the Mayor and Council.”
The council voted 5-2 with Knight and Dare opposed to ratify the amended IAFF contract. For his part, Whittington said the approved contract amendments represented a mutually-beneficial compromise between the parties.
“Thank you for working together with us to find a fiscally-responsible amendment to the collective bargaining agreement,” he said. “It is also one that benefits us operationally as we are amid this COVID-19 and not sure where that is going in the future. We appreciate the open conversation we’ve been able to have.”