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Firefighter union fights city hall

"Negotiations have broken down between the city of Oak Harbor and the new Oak Harbor Fire Department union. The issues: work schedules and vacation time.A state mediator is scheduled to meet with both sides and try to come up with a resolution in mid-June. Meanwhile, the eight-member Oak Harbor Firefighters Guild has filed two unfair labor practices complaints with the state against the city.Lt. Craig Anderson, Firefighters Guild vice president, said Friday the complaints claim that city negotiators bargained progressively backward and unilaterally changed insurance and deferred comp plans without bargaining with us.Anderson said career firefighters officially unionized last October. The guild is different from the Oak Harbor Firefighter Association, which is a community service group, not a union, and includes both volunteer and career firefighters.Mayor Patty Cohen declined to comment on specifics of the ongoing negotiations, but she did say some of the issues have been around for a long time.The issues that they are putting on the table are not new, she said. They have a rather long history.Cohen is not directly involved in the negotiations, but she and the City Council have been briefed by the negotiation team, which includes city Finance Director Doug Merriman, Fire Chief Mark Soptich and professional labor negotiator Cabot Dow of Bellevue. The central issues, Anderson said, are extremely complicated. The firefighters think it's unfair that they work an average of more than 46 hours a week, but get the same vacation package as all city 40-hour-a-week employees. Police officers also work more than 40 hours a week, but they get extra days off during the year to make up for the extra hours.It's an issue of fundamental fairness, Anderson said.Under the Fair Labor Standards Acts, Anderson said people with jobs like firefighters and police officers can be asked to work more than 40 hours without getting overtime pay. But Anderson argues the act was meant for people who work 24-hour shifts and spend much of the time sleeping or waiting. But with the current schedule, the firefighters work 13-hour shifts (14 hours on Mondays) and are actively working the whole time - whether it's maintenance, training or holding classes for the community.Also, the firefighters have concerns about how overtime is calculated.Anderson said the firefighters are mindful of the city's budget problems and aren't asking for more money. The department has gotten the short end of the budget stick over the past few years. New firefighter positions that were promised the department were chopped from the budget two years in a row. The firefighters earn thousands of dollars less than police officers. The salary of a first-year lieutenient in the fire department, in comparison, is nearly $11,000 less than a first-year sargeant in the police department.Chief Soptich has told the City Council many times that the department in severely understaffed.We feel the department provides more bang for the buck than any other department in the state, Anderson said. It's the volunteers and a career staff that is extremely dedicated that make it possible. At this point, Anderson says the firefighters are disappointed by the city's reaction to their concerns. He said he was unhappy to find out that the city hired a professional labor negotiator - and paid for him out of the city's sputtering budget - to handle what he thought was friendly bargaining. In response, the firefighters decided to bring their attorney to the table.But while Anderson claims the city representatives have been unwilling to budge, Merriman said the city is very interested in finding middle ground. He said the city would certainly consider any proposal to change the firefighters' work schedule.At the same time, Merriman said the city does have some pretty serious budget constraints and may not be able to satisfy the guild completely.Your have to pay for middle ground, he said. You can reach staff reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611. "

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