St. Petersburg Times--North Pinellas

Shorter contract with city now goal
The union of firefighters, without a labor agreement since October, locks horns with city officials over raises and job qualifications.

By JENNIFER FARRELL, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
published June 11, 2003

CLEARWATER - Eleven months after opening talks for new labor contracts, the city and its firefighters union are starting over.

Their failure to agree on a three-year deal, even after help from a federal mediator, led the city and the union on Tuesday to scrap negotiations for a long-term contract and shift their focus to a one-year agreement.

But the two sides remain at odds, especially when it comes to pay and provisions that determine who is qualified to perform certain jobs.

The union has demanded higher raises than the city is willing to pay. Union negotiators complain the city wants to lean on unqualified employees to perform higher level tasks as a way to save on overtime.

"They're taking a 30-year pay system and they're just gutting it," John Lee, president of Clearwater Firefighters Local 1158, said Tuesday. He added later: "We're setting our people up to fail. People need to be qualified to take the position."

City Manager Bill Horne, meanwhile, accused the union leadership of being stubborn.

"I think the union would much rather go to impasse than have a contract," he said. "If he goes to impasse and the city imposes undesirable results onto the union, he can say, "I didn't do it. The city did it.' "

Firefighters have been working without a contract since October and are barred by state law from striking. The latest city offer, passed across the table Tuesday, includes a department-wide 4 percent pay hike, equal to annual raises given to the city's civilian employees under a three-year contract ratified earlier this year.

But the proposal eliminates additional raises firefighters have traditionally received based on length of service.

Currently, firefighters receive automatic pay hikes totaling 25 percent over their first five years on the job, and another 15 percent boost over the following 12 years. Those step raises are in addition to annual cost-of-living increases and would disappear under the current proposal.

City officials, who want to abolish the step system altogether, say the union has made its own bed by holding out for more money. Earlier in negotiations, the city offered the firefighters a three-year deal with annual 2 percent increases.

But the union rejected that offer, asking instead for 3 percent the first year, followed by 2.5 percent increases in the remaining two years.

Also, the union has balked at a city plan to formalize the longstanding practice of allowing department employees to "act up," meaning performing jobs above their qualifications in order to save supervisors from calling other employees in on overtime.

City officials say the provision makes sense: Sometimes minimum qualifications include time spent in the department, which doesn't take into account experience from other cities or basic skills and capability.

"This has been a practice that has gone on for years in the Clearwater Fire Department," said city Personnel Director Joe Roseto. "In prior years, everybody was a firefighter and they acted in different capacities. All we're trying to do is codify the process."

Union leaders, meanwhile, say the practice is unsafe and urge the assessments be made only by the training division.

The next round of negotiating sessions have not been scheduled.

- Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrell@sptimes.com