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GRAND RAPIDS July 15, 2015– Grand Rapids firefighters (IAFF Local 366) hit an impasse with the city in their contract negotiations last year, so the two parties sought third-party arbitration in order to reach an agreement. The ruling came back this week, and was mostly bad news for the union.
There were three issues the three-person arbitration panel was asked to rule on: scheduling for fire suppression employees coupled with wage increases; determination of hourly wage rates; and the use of part-time firefighters. The panel ruled in favor of the city on the first two, and in favor of the union on the issue of part-time employees.
Firefighters next year will start working more hours at a lower rate of pay because the city cannot afford “above market prices” for their services, an arbitrator has ruled.
A new work schedule that takes effect Jan. 3 will have Grand Rapids firefighters working an average of 54 hours per week, rather than the current 50.4 hours. That’s another 197 hours per year — a 7.5-percent increase — adding the equivalent of four firefighters per shift.
Firefighters will get a 2 percent pay raise to compensate for the extra hours on duty. However, their hourly rate will decrease because the raise won’t match the extra time on the job.
Grand Rapids firefighters currently work three 24-hour shifts every nine days, with a leave day for every 10 work days. The city wanted to eliminate those leave days in a new contract and the firefighters’ union was OK with that, so long as they got a pay raise to go with it.
The city and the union didn’t come to terms and instead went to arbitration. The union proposed a 53.2-hour work week and a 5.6 percent pay raise to match, but the arbitrator sided with the city.
“It is clear that the city has historically been paying a premium price for its firefighter services,” the decision states. “The additional cost of the union’s last best offer is prohibitive for a city that is still in the process of placing its financial house in order.
“The city cannot achieve financial sustainability while paying above market prices for city services.”
The decision states that Grand Rapids firefighters work fewer hours than peers in comparable communities and yet are paid “well above the average compensation rates.”
On the issue of utilizing part-time employees, the arbitration panel ruled in favor of the union, which asked that the city not hire part-timers.
From the official opinion:
The City maintains that it has an inherent right to utilize part-time employees. However, it has cited no statute or ruling by any appellate court recognizing or establishing such a right.
The City did offer evidence that the use of part-time employees might be cost effective. However, that evidence was not persuasive. The Union conversely presented a strong case that the use of part-time firefighters would raise issues of firefighter safety. Firefighter Joe Dubay and Lieutenant Richard Clark both testified that the use of part-time firefighters raised safety concerns. Mr. Dubay made the point that firefighting is a team endeavor. Full-time firefighters spend fifty hour[s] a week working and training together. This is an essential element of becoming a team. Part-time employees would spend fewer hours with their co-workers; they would by definition have less interaction with the fellow firefighter either working or training. One can infer from Mr. Dubay’s point that part-time firefighters would not become fully integrated into the “team.” This would cause them, their fellow firefighters, and the public to be at a disadvantage.
Joe Dubay, IAFF Local 366 president, told MLive, “Certainly, it didn’t go the way we had hoped. We’re not going to stomp our feet and be mad about it. We have prevailed in arbitrations in the past and the city didn’t stomp their feet. Quite honestly, it’s a noble process.”