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Arbitrator orders embattled Ore. FD, union to renegotiate contract, wages

The Columbia River Fire District and the firefighters’ union must rework salaries and wage scale information


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By Maxine Bernstein

ST. HELENS, Ore. — The Columbia River Fire & Rescue District and the local firefighters union signed a 2022-2025 contract but never had “a meeting of the minds” on substantial salary increases for two firefighter classifications, an arbitrator has found.

He ordered the contract be rescinded and renegotiated.

The ruling on the disputed contract is the latest development in labor-management and financial strife plaguing the St. Helens-based fire department.

As reflected in the language of the contract, fire district officials intended to move away from 10% premium pay increases previously given to firefighters who are paramedics and those certified as advanced emergency medical technicians in favor of annual lump sum stipends, the arbitrator found.

But the contract that was ratified and signed by both sides included a wage scale as an appendix that rolled in the old 10% premium pay increase plus a 2% cost-of-living increase and the annual lump-sum stipends.

Fire district officials didn’t discover the discrepancy in the appendix until after the contract was signed and refused to pay the double increases.

The St. Helens Professional Fire Fighters Local 3215 filed a grievance, demanding the district follow the increases in the appendix.

Arbitrator Eric B. Lindauer found that at no point in bargaining did the union represent to the district that it intended the premium pay percentage increases would continue in addition to the annual lump sum payments.

“There was no meeting of the minds on this critical issue and without a meeting of the minds, there is simply no agreement by which the parties could be bound,” Lindauer wrote.

The whole point of the district’s bargaining position was to get away from the 10% premium pay because the “compounding effect” of those payments threatened to “break the district at some point,” former district board member Gary Hudson testified at the arbitration hearing.

Columbia River Fire & Rescue, Columbia County’s largest fire department covering a slice of a sprawling territory on the edge of the metro area, provides firefighting and emergency medical care to over 27,000 people with 35 full-time paid firefighters.

“The agreed-upon year-end lump payments were intended to replace, not be in addition to, the premium percentages,” Lindauer wrote.

The union offered “no documented evidence” that it had ever given the district notice that the premium pay percentage increases would continue in addition to the lump sums.

The union vice president, Aaron Peterson, acknowledged during the arbitration hearing that the union’s position was “never communicated” to the district in writing or verbally, the arbitrator found.

“Did the district at any time raise the issue that, in effect, you were double dipping?” Lindauer asked Peterson during a recent arbitration hearing.

Peterson said the union assumed the district was aware of what was in the attached wage table before it signed the contract. He said no one from the district raised any concerns about what was in the table until after the contract was ratified.

He later acknowledged in the hearing that nowhere else in the contract did it state that those who qualified for premium pay would get both a percentage raise and lump sum.

“The Arbitrator concludes the Union could not have reasonably believed the District, given its dire financial position, would have agreed to roll the 10% paramedic premium percentage into the new salary schedule, plus the 2% COLA increase and, in addition, include the $7,500 annual lump sum stipend,” Lindauer’s ruling said.

“If this issue was as important to the Union as it now claims, it could have negotiated language” to that effect, Lindauer found.

The arbitrator dismissed the union’s argument that the district should be bound by the contract it signed.

“We had a deal. They understood the deal and they’re not living up to the deal,” union lawyer Noah Warman argued at the hearing.

That’s not the issue, Lindauer wrote.

“The fundamental issue in this case is whether the Union met its burden of proof in establishing the District accepted and agreed to the Wage Table,” in the appendix, he wrote. “The union offered no evidence, beyond just the wage table’s existence.’’

Lindauer recommended both sides reopen negotiations but confine future bargaining to only the salaries-and-wage scale and leave the remaining, agreed-upon provisions of the contract alone and in effect.

He also ordered both sides to equally share the costs of arbitration.

This is the latest blow to the union.

Earlier this month, the Oregon Secretary of State’s Elections Division found the union violated the state’s election law by failing to accurately report the source of a $6,000 contribution for the May election of three new Columbia River Fire & Rescue board members and issued the union a civil penalty.

The local union reported it received the $6,000 contribution from the Salem -based Oregon Professional Fire Fighters Political Action Committee on April 2 , but that committee didn’t report making any contributions to the St. Helens union for a 2023 election. The union has since corrected its filing to show the contribution came from Oregon State Professional Fire Fighters Council .

Jeff Lockhart , a union member, told The Oregonian /OregonLive previously that he had made a mistake in the report to the state, calling it a clerical error.

According to its website, the Oregon State Fire Fighters Council works on legislative issues that affect working conditions, wages and benefits for firefighters, while the Oregon Professional Fire Fighters Political Action Committee funds lobbying and supports candidates and measures that affect working conditions for firefighters.

The maximum civil penalty is $600, according to the state’s notice.

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