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Wilmington firefighters clash with city over proposed shift change

Delaware Public Media

A new effort is being made to end the impasse between the City of Wilmington and the Wilmington firefighters’ union over a new contract. One point of contention is how to end the controversial practice of rolling bypasses.

The stalled contract negotiations between the city and its firefighters’ union have moved into binding arbitration. 

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki plans to change the structure of the firefighters’ shifts— from one 24-hour shift every four days to one every three. Purzycki says the City is offering a 24 percent salary increase — consisting of the increase in hours from the shift change, plus a 2 percent annual cost-of-living increase

Purzycki claims the shift change would allow the city to end it’s 20-year practice of rolling bypasses, where fire vehicles are taken out of commission on a rotating basis to accommodate staffing constraints. Firefighters have claimed the practice of rolling bypasses contributed to the severity of a 2016 fire that killed three Wilmington firefighters. 

Union president Joseph Leonetti objects to the City’s proposed shift change. He notes it would mean each firefighter working more than three hundred additional hours a year.

“The big problem we have with it is, we’re not a 9-5 person sitting behind a desk. We’re out on the street, responding to not just fires—every car accident and shooting and stabbing and CPRs and everything else that goes on in this city that’s an emergency for people,” he said. 

Leonetti sees the 72 hours Wilmington firefighters currently get off between shifts as vital to their mental health.

“Firefighters, cops, military— highest suicide rates out there,” he said. “It’s because of the things we see and not having enough time to decompress afterwards and be with our families. ”

Purzycki says the City’s proposed 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off shift structure is in place in fire departments in several cities throughout the country. 

Leonetti argues Wilmington firefighters are willing to work enough overtime to end rolling bypasses now, but that the city’s budget prevents this. He also notes 16 vacant positions were cut from the fire department during Purzycki’s first year in office. 

Purzycki says if the City were to add back these positions under the current shift schedule, the City would still need to use rolling bypasses.  

Purzycki says the City recently notified the union that, pending further negotiations, the City’s proposed shift change will begin July 1, 2020. The City says the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) ruled the City has authority to change the current shift system but must negotiate related items, such as salary. 

The Wilmington firefighters’ last contract with the City ended in 2016. The parties began the current negotiations this January. 

“Wilmington has an outstanding fire department, led by an equally outstanding Chief of Fire,” said Purzycki in a statement. “Our firefighters protect us and are true firefighting professionals. This Administration has treated, and will always treat, our firefighters with the respect that they deserve.”

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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