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Firefighters' union in talks with city

"Oak Harbor Fire Department has been running on the cheap for years because of the city's strained budget. The department has been hit with budget cuts during the past four years. Several new firefighter positions have never been filled. The department never got to purchase the rescue and firefighting boat that has been in the books for years.The newly formed Oak Harbor Firefighters' Guild recently put the department and its budget into the city spotlight by bringing the city into somewhat hostile contract negotiations that recently broken down, causing the state to send in a mediator.Both sides have pointed to fire departments in other cities, comparing Oak Harbor to try to make their points.So how does the Oak Harbor Fire Department compare?Compared to cities of similar size, Oak Harbor leans on volunteer firefighters to a much greater extent. Career firefighters are paid less, but work fewer hours on average.On the other hand, union members say their unusual work schedule is much tougher on them and violates the spirit of the Fair Labor Standards Acts, which allows firefighters and police officers to be worked more than 40 hours a week without overtime.In fact, they say they end of actually working more than other departments.The cities of Mukilteo, Mount Vernon and Anacortes have many more career firefighters than Oak Harbor. Career firefighters, as compared to volunteers, are paid regular wages. Oak Harbor has eight career firefighters, not including Chief Mark Soptich or Battalion Chief Ray Merrill. Mount Vernon has 30, Mukilteo has 15 and Anacortes has 17.A beginning firefighter in Oak Harbor is paid $37,884, the least of the four cities. Anacortes, which is a smaller city, pays starting firefighters about $10,000 a year more.Among the four cities, the number of hours the firefighter work varies from an average of 46 hours a week in Oak Harbor, the lowest, to 60 hours a week in Anacortes.But it's how these hours are scheduled that seems to be at the heart of the fight between the city of Oak Harbor and the union.The majority of fire departments in the state, including Anacortes, Mukilteo and Mount Vernon, schedule firefighters on 24-hour shifts. According to Lt. Craig Anderson, Firefighters Guild vice president, much of the time these firefighters are being paid while they sleep, watch TV or just wait around since there's not much work that can be done at night.That's why federal law allows them to work so many hours a week, Anderson said. After all, much of their time isn't spent working, but being ready to work.Oak Harbor firefighters in the suppression unit, on the other hand, are scheduled to work 13-hour shifts, with 14 hours on Monday. Unlike those on 24-hour shifts, Anderson said Oak Harbor firefighters are actively working during their entire shift - whether it's maintenance, training or holding classes for the community.Because the city gets an average 46 hours a week of actual work from each firefighter, Anderson said they should be compensated based on this actual work. Union members aren't asking for pay increases, Anderson said, because they are aware of the city's shaky financial status. But he said the city can give them a fair number of holiday hours without changing the budget.Right now, the firefighters get the same number of holiday hours as the city's regular 40-hour employees. The union members want more because they work more.The city administration, however, disagrees. But Soptich, Merriman and City Supervisor Ken Nyberg say they can't discuss the specifics of ongoing negotiations. The city's negotiations team is made up of Finance Director Doug Merriman, Fire Chief Mark Soptich and a city consultant - professional labor negotiator Cabot Dow of Bellevue.The first of mediation session between the firefighters' union and the city's team last month didn't go very well or went pretty well, depending on which side you talk to.After the lengthy session, the mediator said there were too many issues on the table to settle everything in a day. Another session was scheduled for the end of July.Merriman said negotiations were going pretty much as expected.But Oak Harbor Fire Department Lt. Craig Anderson said the tone of the meeting did not leave him optimistic that the city would be willing to compromise. Several union members wrote a letter to Mayor Patty Cohen, complaining about the city's tactics and what they see as the negotiator's disrespect toward them. They asked Cohen to sit in on a session.The members of the Oak Harbor Firefighter's Guild would very much like to see these negotiations come to a fair and trusted resolution, the letter states.The sooner this is accomplished, the sooner both sides can give their full attention to serving the citizens of Oak Harbor. You can reach features editor Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611. "

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