New Orleans FD superintendent cancels vacations for FFs amid fight with union
The superintendent said the cancellation was necessary to protect the city in the wake of a voluntary overtime boycott
Ramon Antonio Vargas
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans Fire Department Superintendent Tim McConnell late Monday canceled firefighters’ vacation and annual leave until further notice, claiming it was necessary to adequately protect the city in the wake of a union boycott of voluntary overtime.
McConnell’s directive, which was provided to media outlets by the firefighters' union, was apparently issued shortly after a news conference in which he pledged to do whatever necessary to keep the city safe.
The directive laid out a process by which the city's 480 or so firefighters could preserve their vacations if they proved that they had already spent money to take previously scheduled out-of-town trips. But the directive made clear that the NOFD would handle requests for such exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
McConnell’s directive also said there would be a process by which firefighters could be forced to work overtime hours, a situation which is usually reserved for emergencies.
The firefighters’ union rebuked the decision in a statement Tuesday, saying McConnell’s move either was simply "cruel and vindictive" or — alternatively — proved that concerns about the department’s staffing levels were well-founded.
The directive doesn’t specify a reason for the possibility of forced overtime beyond the firefighters’ boycott of voluntary overtime, which the union says in no way resembles an emergency like a natural disaster.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration said giving firefighters forced overtime wouldn't be necessary as long as they kept showing up for regularly scheduled shifts, which the union's members intend to do.
But the administration said "it would be irresponsible for the city not to be prepared" by taking steps to ensure firefighters' availability with the influx of visitors expected as the Carnival season reaches its climax Feb. 25 on Fat Tuesday.
"The cancellation of vacation is a temporary directive," said the administration's statement, which called firefighters the city's most dedicated workers. "It will be rescinded as staffing increases or if firefighters agree to work voluntary overtime shifts."
Union president Aaron Mischler said his group's attorney planned to seek a court injunction aimed at preventing McConnell from being able to enforce his directive.
New Orleans firefighters said Monday they would no longer work voluntary overtime and other unscheduled hours beyond their regular shifts, stepping up a fight with Cantrell’s staff over a host of labor issues.
The firefighters said they were volunteering to work more than 90-hour weeks to help the city cope as NOFD's ranks thinned by 25 percent over the last decade.
McConnell agreed his department's manpower is lower than ideal — about 60 firefighters short of its authorized strength. But he noted that two classes of recruits working through the training academy should help boost numbers. And, while he acknowledged calls for service of various types have increased, structure fires have fallen by more than 50%.
Yet Mischler contends that the lengthy work weeks are endangering firefighters by mentally and physically taxing them to the extreme.
Depending on how entrenched the dispute becomes, it could create headaches for the city with Mardi Gras parades as well as springtime festivals looming.
Firefighters working voluntary overtime details help erect and take down barricades for parades. Organizers of events like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival are also required by law to hire such details for food vendors to be able to cook food on site.
With firefighters declining to work those details, the city's best option is to pull on-duty personnel from neighborhood stations. But that also reduces the number of firefighters available to respond to emergencies elsewhere, Mischler has said.
Union officials said firefighters do not plan to stop showing up for their regularly scheduled shifts despite their disgust with the vacation cancellations.
Nonetheless, during past labor disputes, firefighters in the past have staged "sickouts" where they called in sick en masse.
In one sickout, about 75 percent of the NOFD called in sick on a single day in 1999, prompting the city to force on-duty firefighters to work back-to-back tours of duty to prevent a dangerous manpower shortage. New Orleans officials at the time estimated that day cost the city about $28,000 in unforeseen overtime compensation.
Perhaps the most dramatic first responders' labor stoppage in New Orleans was the 1979 police strike, which forced the city to cancel that year's Mardi Gras.
NOFD has mutual aid agreements in place by which surrounding communities' departments can send firefighters into New Orleans to help staff undermanned station houses. But that usually only kicks in when most of the city's on-duty firefighters end up having to converge at the site of an unusually large emergency.
Robert Burkett, the president of the adjacent Jefferson Parish firefighters' union, said his members wouldn’t make themselves available to boost NOFD’s numbers in the context of a labor dispute. He suspects most, if not all, outside firefighters' unions would feel similarly, especially with many of their departments dealing with their own staffing issues.
“I believe the problems (New Orleans and its fire service) are experiencing can be resolved if cooler heads prevail,” Burkett said. “I would hope that they sit down and do that.”
The New Orleans union's grievances go beyond the work load.
Firefighters also want to be paid overtime after exceeding 96 hours on a 14-day cycle, rather than after 212 hours on a 28-day cycle. Firefighters say the change would bring them more in line with the New Orleans Police Department's overtime policy.
Additionally, firefighters say the rates they are paid for off-duty details trail those given to the city's other first-response agencies, and the union is demanding an hourly increase of $5 across all ranks.
Promotions and pensions at NOFD bother the union, too.
Union officials argue that the city can pick and choose whom it promotes within NOFD rather than rely on a system primarily based on test score.
The union says that's the case even after a December 2018 court ruling found that 15 New Orleans firefighters had been unjustly denied promotions for what were essentially political reasons, despite civil service rules meant to ensure merit-based promotions.
Meanwhile, firefighters hired more recently are required to work 10 years longer to fully collect their pension. The union wants the pension system to become uniform.
McConnell on Monday bristled at some of those complaints, saying it was Cantrell's administration who in 2018 authorized a 10% pay raise for firefighters and other city employees. The city's workforce had gone a decade without such a raise.
"Unfortunately ... union leadership has forgotten," McConnell said.
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