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City of Ocoee, Fire Fighters Union sign new 3-year contract

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Thursday, December 23, 2021


Norine Dworkin /VoxPopuli

Union Local 3623 President Chris Atalski (L) and Lt. Ron Tosi led the union negotiating team through nine months of bargaining sessions to a contract that union members voted overwhelmingly to accept.

After nearly a year of hard-fought negotiations that included accusations of bad faith bargaining on both sides, an impasse declaration, a breakdown of talks, and the appointment of a special magistrate to act as referee, the leaders of both the City of Ocoee and the fire fighters union managed to reach a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) on their own that both sides have hailed as fair.

Union Local 3623 announced Dec. 17 on its Facebook page that its leadership signed the 2020-2023 agreement with the city that morning. Union president Chris Atalski said in an interview that the union membership overwhelmingly voted in favor of the CBA.

“I’m happy about it. We’re happy about it. And the vote told us that we did a halfway decent job of making our members happy,” he said.

The CBA provides Ocoee’s fire fighters with a 12 percent raise over the contract’s three years: 3 percent in 2020-2021; 5 percent in 2021-2022 and 4 percent in 2022-2023. It’s a compromise that splits the difference between the 13.5 percent raise the union wanted and the 11.5 percent raise the city originally offered.

Commissioner George Oliver III, who represents District 4, described the CBA as a “fair agreement” for both parties, but added that in the future, the city could make “even more concessions” to increase fire fighter salaries to ensure the city remains competitive with Orange County and other municipalities.

“The agreement could be strengthened,” Oliver said. “Pay raises could be a little bit more to make sure we retain our competitive edge.”

Fire fighters joining the department now can expect to earn just over $15 an hour or $43,691.70 a year. In 2022-2023, the starting salary jumps to $44,565.50. Previous starting pay was $13.74, about $40,000, which had put Ocoee near the bottom of the pay scale for the region. Low pay was one of the key factors driving a mass exodus of fire fighters to other municipalities or out of the field altogether. Ocoee had lost 19 fire fighters in the last year alone. Now with a competitive salary, the hope is Ocoee’s fire department can attract and retain talent.

“We are excited. Hopefully some of the bleeding will stop,” Atalski said in an email.

A hard-won fight

The 2020-2023 CBA is good news for the union. But the union negotiating team fought hard for every gain in the contract.

“We had to. We were losing people left and right,” Atalski said. “The city likes to take advantage of us and see how hard we’re going to fight for the things that we want. They didn’t willingly give us anything. They just knew they had a fight, and they wanted to fight it till the end.”

Fire fighters started 2021 with a “zombie contract.” Contracts run three years, October 1 through September 30, to match the city's fiscal year. But by the time the union and city had reached an agreement on the 2017-2020 contract — in December 2020 — it was expired. 

Atalski, who took over as union president in February after the previous president was wrongfully terminated, immediately began working on the 2020-2023 contract. It was a laborious process. In July, the union declared an impasse — the first time the union had ever called an impasse — which necessitated a hearing before a special magistrate who would then deliver rulings on the outstanding issues of the contract. They’d made some progress but were still far apart and dug in on big issues like wages, grievance procedures, and incentive packages.

It was at the impasse hearing in October, that Atalski overheard city negotiators discussing the possibility of settling with the union before the magistrate delivered his verdict. The union reached out; the city was receptive. Perhaps motivated by not having to pay the magistrate to pick through the contract and come back with a deal that neither party liked, representatives from both sides hunkered down to see if they could finally hammer out an acceptable agreement themselves.

“On the last possible day that we could settle on our own, the city came with a pretty good proposal,” said Atalski. “It wasn’t everything we wanted, but it was enough where we said, Let’s accept this.”

What else is in the CBA?

VoxPopuli obtained a rough copy of the CBA. Here’s what makes this a good deal:

  • The return of supplemental pension benefits. Known as Chapter 175 premium tax revenue, this is money the state gives the city for maintaining its own fire department. The funds are derived from the 1.75 tax Florida collects on homeowners' insurance policies. Typically, this money is shared between the union and the city. If there’s disagreement about how the money is to be split, Florida statute decrees a 50-50 split. In 2015, the city requested that the union give the city its share to help offset the costs of funding the pension. The union agreed. But in 2017, Mayor Rusty Johnson, City Manager Robert Frank, Human Resources Director Gene Williford, and then-Union President James Kelley signed a mutual consent agreement allowing the city to take the union’s share of the 175 money in perpetuity. Union members objected, claiming that Kelley’s decision was unilateral, and nonbinding since it changed the terms of the CBA without a union vote. The union had been trying to claw back its share of the money ever since. With this CBA, they finally have it. Effective October 1, 2021, the union receives half of the monies that come in above the base tax revenue of $282,130.75. The city’s half goes to fund the required contribution to the Chapter 175 Plan.

  • Paramedic tuition reimbursement. Ocoee requires its fire fighters to earn paramedic licensure within two years of their hire if they are not already. This can be an expensive endeavor, costing up to $8,000 to $10,000 depending on the program. With the new CBA, the city has allotted tuition reimbursement for a “minimum” of four fire fighters — with the possibility of more as the budget allows. Those receiving tuition reimbursement must commit to serving the city for three years. No word yet from the city on how the four candidates for reimbursement will be chosen.

  • An increase in the paramedic incentive. Paramedics will now receive $9,500, which puts Ocoee in line with Winter Park and Orange County on the upper end of what area departments offer. The city had originally offered $8,500 so this is a huge win for the union. 

  • An added incentive for rescue unit assignments. There’s an additional $1 an hour for paramedics and $.50 an hour for EMTs who work rescue duty to compensate for the extra labor involved. “When the rest of the department is sleeping or sitting around or training, they’re running calls, or transporting patients," Atalski explained. This is a major win for the union because the city was originally "dead set against this," said Atalski. But when he explained that the rescue operators comprised a majority of the union and if he went back to them empty-handed, they could have a no vote contract, the city ponied up. “It was half of what we asked for, but definitely a good, positive, forward step to show that appreciation for the employees,” said Atalski. 

  • Expanded health examinations. Extra screenings were added to fire fighters’ annual physicals, including tests for tuberculosis and LifeScan.

  • The right to arbitrate demotions. Fire fighters have previously had no recourse to appeal a demotion other than to go before the city manager. Now an impartial arbitrator’s ruling is binding, which puts a measure of fairness back into the discipline process.

  • Paychecks are easier to understand. Fire fighters have a 21-day work cycle but get paid every 14 days. In the past, payroll would shift hours from one pay period to another so paychecks had roughly the same number of hours. Under the new CBA, the work cycle is now 14 days, so paychecks more accurately reflect the hours worked.

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