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City of Wilmington's offer wins out in contract dispute with firefighters' union

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Delaware Public Media

The long contract impasse between the City of Wilmington and its firefighters’ union has come to an end. 

The union is unhappy with the resolution. 

The dispute went to binding arbitration, with the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) decision Wednesday in favor of the City’s contract offer. 

The firefighters’ last contract expired almost four years ago. They started negotiating a new one with the City early last year. IAFF Local 1590 membership rejected a tentative agreement in February which unionpresident Joe Leonetti, Jr., described as less restrictive than the one they ended up with. 

The new four-year contract, retroactive to July 2019, includes 2-percent yearly cost-of-living increases, higher healthcare costs for firefighters and a new shift schedule requiring them to work 24-hour shifts every three days, instead of every four, as they do now. 

It also specifies that the shift schedule may be changed at the discretion of the Chief of Fire. 

Leonetti calls the PERB ruling a “punch in the gut.” He notes firefighters will be “forced” to work an additional 312 hours per year under the new shift structure of 24 hours on, 48 hours off. The new shift schedule kicks in July 1.

“We’re the only City employees that are forced to work more than 40 hours a week,” he said. “We’re the only City employees who do not get time-and-a-half after 40 hours a week.”

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki argues the new contract “essentially eliminates” the need for rolling bypasses — or the temporary shuttering of engine companies on a rotating basis. 

“This contract finally moves us forward on new levels of compensation for firefighters,” said Mayor Purzycki in a statement Thursday. “We will begin a new work shift this summer that will end daily staff shortages so the department can operate all of its vehicles, unless, of course, there is an unanticipated staffing shortage.”

The City has used rolling bypasses for about two decades to accommodate staffing constraints. Firefighters have claimed the practice contributed to the severity of a 2016 fire that killed three Wilmington firefighters. 

The union has argued the City could have eliminated the practice without the shift change by budgeting for more overtime. According to the PERB decision, the City intends for the new shift structure to control “excessive overtime expenditure.”

“Ultimately, the City established a compelling need to adjust the deployment of fire suppression resources in Wilmington to end the WFD’s [Wilmington Fire Department’s] reliance on rolling bypass and high levels of overtime expenditures,”  PERB Executive Director Deborah Murray-Sheppard wrote in her May 27 decision. 

“The transition to a new platoon and shift structure will require adjustments by firefighters,” she added. “That adjustment is necessitated and supported by public interest in the health and safety of firefighters and residents and visitors to the City of Wilmington.”

The firefighters will see their pay increase by 16 percent as a result of the additional hours. 

Leonetti says he worries this could lead to Fire Department layoffs or attrition. “[The City’s] contract is more expensive than the deal we put on the table,” he said. “Especially in the climate that we are now and the economy, where is this extra money going to come from? We know it’s going to come from firefighter jobs and an engine company.” 

Starting July 1, Wilmington firefighters will pay 12 percent of the cost of their healthcare. Their employee contributions will be reduced to 10 percent if they undergo age-appropriate medical screenings. City officials say this mirrors the rates Wilmington police officers and most other City employees pay. 

“The healthcare’s not a big deal," said Leonetti. "We were ready to pay what everybody else paid.”

The new contract sets a limit on the number of days off per year firefighters can exchange with colleagues. City officials argue the limit prevents firefighters from taking extended time off, holding them  “more accountable” to the Fire Department and helping with fire company continuity, training and evaluations.

 

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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