Firefighters steamed over slow contract

The spokesman for the Oak Harbor Firefighters’ union told the City Council Tuesday that he was “disappointed and displeased” with the length of time it has taken to negotiate a contract with the city.

“We didn’t bring pay raises to the table,” Lt. Craig Anderson, the vice president of the Oak Harbor Firefighters Guild, said. “We just wanted to get back to the schedule we once had.”

The fire department union formed in October of 2001 and started contract negotiations with the city last summer. The state sent in a mediator last June after the talks between the union representative and the city’s bargaining team broke down.

But about nine months later, the city’s eight career firefighters are still working without a contract.

Mayor Patty Cohen cut off Anderson while he was addressing the council during the open public comment period. Attorney Phil Bleyhl agreed that it was “inappropriate for people involved in contract negotiations to speak in a public setting.”

Anderson said he was exasperated by the process and “just wanted something to be done.”

He may get his wish. Cohen agreed during the Tuesday meeting to meet with Anderson sometime during the next couple of days.

Thursday, Anderson said he met with Cohen and Finance Director Doug Merriman, who is a member of the city’s three-person bargaining team, and they all agreed to try hard to work out the contract next week.

Anderson said he’s now “hopeful” the issues will get resolved next week.

Merriman said Friday that the city is ready to finalize the agreement next week. He said most of the issues have been resolved already, but there are just a few loose ends left to tie up.

“We’re at the point of wrapping things up,” Merriman said.

The main issue of contention is over the firefighters’ schedule. Anderson said the firefighters were unhappy when their schedule changed from the 24-hour work shifts the vast majority of fire departments have to 13-hour shifts (with 14 hours on Mondays).

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. Yet he argues that the acts was meant for people who work 24-hour shifts and spend much of the time sleeping or waiting.

With their current 13-hour schedule, Anderson said they work over 46 hours a week, but they are actually busy all the time. There is no sleeping or down time.

“We just wanted to go back to what we had before,” he said.

Anderson said it’s unfair that firefighters get the same vacation package as the city’s 40-hour-a-week employees.

According to Anderson, one of the reasons the negotiations have taken so long is because of the city’s paid consultant, Cabot Dow of Bellevue, was so “unfriendly.” The city’s negotiations team is made up of Merriman, Dow and Fire Chief Mark Soptich.

Anderson said the issues would probably have been resolved long ago without the $105-an-hour consultant.

“The issue we had would not have cost the city as much as the hired consultant,” he said.

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