Fire dept. must stop filling in for sick firefighters

The growing cost of overtime increases when firefighters call in sick and the city cannot afford the trend

By Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — The Fire Department no longer will be able to have firefighters fill in for colleagues who call in sick, a move that City Manager Sharon A. Addison admits violates the union contract.

Ms. Addison directed Fire Chief Dale C. Herman on Wednesday morning that firefighters cannot be called into work to fill in for their colleagues who are absent because of illness.

The new practice of “not backfilling” sick firefighters begins Sunday, Ms. Addison said.

The City Council was notified about the change during an executive session Monday night, a day before two new council members were elected on platforms of taking a softer stance against the fire department’s union.

The city is taking the measure to cut down on overtime associated with sick time, Ms. Addison said. The growing cost of overtime increases when firefighters call in sick and the city cannot afford the trend, she said.

Both Chief Herman and union President Daniel Daugherty were surprised by the move.

“This is proof positive of what the union has said: That the city has been the vindictive force in the contract fight,” Mr. Daugherty said.

The city and Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191 are in the midst of a bitter three-year contract dispute.

Chief Herman said the approach will only drive a bigger schism between the union and the city.

“As I told the manager, the abyss just got wider,” he said, adding that he must follow the instructions of his boss.

The contract dispute’s main sticking point remains the issue involving the “minimum manning” stipulation that 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times. The city contends the stipulation causes the department to be overstaffed, while the union maintains that changing it would be unsafe.

The contract talks became increasingly bitter after eight captains were demoted to firefighters in July 2016.

With the directive going into effect, the daily staffing level cannot fall below 13 firefighters, including a battalion chief, the city manager said.

Asked what the move means for the minimum manning issue, Ms. Addison acknowledged, “This violates the contract.”

However, she denied that the city is negotiating in bad faith. She also denied that it will weaken the city’s case once it goes before an arbitrator.

Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. stressed the city was forced to move forward with the directive. The city isn’t negotiating in bad faith because talks ended a long time ago, the mayor said.

“We’re not negotiating. They don’t want to negotiate. They haven’t negotiated for a long time,” he said.

In a recent opinion column for the Watertown Daily Times, Mayor Butler wrote that $178,000 — or 27 percent — in recent $665,000 overtime expenses were directly related to firefighters calling in sick.

For a three-year period, 29 percent of the overtime was associated with sick time in 2014 and 28 percent in both 2015 and 2016, Ms. Addison said, adding the trend would continue if the change wasn’t made.

The sick time expense “sheds light” on how the minimum staffing clause affects the city, she said.

“Management is severely restricted by the contract to manage its staffing,” he said. “And this is management’s effort to control what we believe is the use of excessive sick time.”

Contacted Wednesday afternoon, Councilman Cody J. Horbacz said he was “not in favor of violating the contract,” declining to comment further.

By going to the sick-time directive, the city is going against the voters’ wishes to find a way to resolve the contract dispute, Mr. Daugherty said.

“Less than 24 hours after an election of change, they push forward on a failed agenda against the voting public,” he said.

Ryan Henry-Wilkinson and Lisa Ruggiero were elected into office, replacing incumbents Teresa R. Macaluso and Stephen A. Jennings. Mr. Henry-Wilkinson and Mrs. Ruggiero ran on resolving the labor dispute, while the two incumbents supported staying the course of fighting the union, saying the city cannot financially sustain the fire department’s current model.

Copyright 2017 Watertown Daily Times

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