Revolving door: 17 firefighters have left the Ocoee Fire Department since January. VoxPopuli has learned that more defections are anticipated.

Contract talks between Ocoee and union firefighters flame out

Instant Photo Poster
By
Norine Dworkin

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Founding Editor

Image-empty-state.png

Paul Morrison/VoxPopuli

Revolving door: 17 firefighters have left the Ocoee Fire Department since January. VoxPopuli has learned that more defections are anticipated.

Negotiations between Ocoee Professional Firefighters Local 3623 and the city sputtered out after the Sept. 20 bargaining session, which turned out to be the last. No additional meetings are planned until representatives from the union and the city appear at an impasse hearing before a special magistrate appointed by the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC). The public hearing is scheduled to take place at the Lakeshore Center Oct. 29 at 9:30 a.m.


During the hearing, both sides will present their cases after which the special magistrate will issue a recommendation, which will then be voted on by the city commission. According to a PERC spokesperson, if that passes, the union and city have an agreement the union can vote on. However, if either the union or the city disputes any sections of the recommendation, those items will come back before the city commission, which is then tasked to act in a neutral, “quasi-judicial” capacity to adjudicate each disputed item, until every item is resolved. The full agreement would then head to the firefighters for a vote. If the vote fails, only approved articles in the contract would go into effect for the remainder of the fiscal year. At that point, the union and city would need to return to the bargaining table to resolve the outstanding issues.


Since February, the union and the city have been negotiating their current collective bargaining agreement, which spans fiscal years 2021-2023 (from Oct. 1 2020 through Sept. 30 2023). The talks began four months after the last agreement for fiscal years 2017-2020 , finally signed in December 2020, had expired.


The union initially proposed a 3-percent wage increase in the contract’s first year, a 5.5-percent increase in the second year and a 5-percent increase in the third year; a $1/hour wage increase for senior firefighters so that new firefighters hired at the higher wage didn’t earn more than veterans; a fair grievance/arbitration procedure; and the return of the union’s share of their supplemental pension money known as “175 money.”


On April 29, the city came back with a 3-percent raise in the first year of the contract, 4.5 percent in the second year and 4 percent in the third year; increases in the paramedic incentive to $8,500 on ratification and $9,000 in the second and third years; paramedic education reimbursement for four employees per year (with a 36 month commitment to the city); salary caps; and increases of $.20 to $.44/hour for veteran firefighters to keep them ahead of new hire salaries.


On June 2, the union submitted a more comprehensive proposal to the city. At the next meeting on July 26, the city rejected the union’s proposal in its entirety and resubmitted its April 29 proposal with minor language changes.


Union president Chris Atalski told VoxPopuli at the July 26 meeting that he’d been prepared to meet the city in the middle. “But to come back with nothing, that wastes our time,” he said.


At that point, the union declared an impasse – a signal that the city was not bargaining in good faith. The union’s attorney, Richard Siwica of the Orlando firm Egan, Lev & Siwica, sent a letter to PERC, requesting that a special magistrate adjudicate contract negotiations. It was the first time the union had had to declare an impasse, Atalski said.


“Prior to our invoking impasse, Jeff and the city refused to TA [tentatively agree on] any articles,” said Atalski, referring to attorney Jeffrey E. Mandel, regional managing partner of the law firm Fisher Phillips LLP and the city’s negotiator. “Once we invoked impasse, Jeff sat down and said Okay, you want to TA some articles? You want articles TA’d because you can put them aside and forget about them. Then you just have XYZ to concentrate on instead of trying to concentrate on the whole contract.”


As the two sides continued to meet through August and September, agreements were reached on key items such as payment for paramedic education for every firefighter who required it this fiscal year, which was a sizable increase from the four employees that the city had originally proposed.

The city also agreed to return the union’s share of 175 money.


A matter of ongoing contention, the supplemental pension money is funded by 1.75 percent of all real estate insurance within a city’s limits. The money is sent to the state, then given back to cities that maintain their own fire departments. Cities and fire departments decide how to split the funds after expenses are paid. Absent an agreement, the funds are split 50/50. Ocoee’s 175 money has been in dispute since 2017 when the city claimed all of it in perpetuity under a mutual consent agreement that the union maintains was not legally binding. The union has been fighting to get their share back ever since.


“It’s a win for us because we’re actually getting some of our 175 money back even if it doesn’t give us justice for the last three years of them stealing it from us,” said Atalski.


The union reps went to TA the pension article, but ran into a surprising obstacle. "Jeff refused," said Atalski. “I had to ask him to make sure I heard him right. But, yes, he refused to TA the city’s own proposal.”


Atalski and his negotiating team tried a different article: additional payment when an employee works a more senior job, say, when a firefighter drives the truck (engineer) or an engineer works as a supervisor (lieutenant).


When the city wouldn’t budge, the union backed down. After all, Atalski reasoned, they were asking for money in other areas — paramedic education reimbursement, rescue incentives, longevity pay, the 175 money. They couldn’t have everything.


“Jeff refused to sign off,” Atalski said. “He wanted the union to give him something.”


Mandel did not respond to an email request for comment.


“We have absolutely nothing to give,” said Atalski. “We can’t give back pay, we can’t give back benefits, we can’t give back pension, healthcare. We’re not in a position where we can do any of those things. We can’t recruit new hires, we can’t retain them. We’re at a position where the city needs to help us fix the problem and we’re not getting help. The city has the money and the benefits and they’re just not coughing up anything to be able to recruit.”


Indeed, while the fire department has no shortage of firefighters leaving the department — 17 have left since January, and VoxPopuli just learned that two more firefighters are expected to hand in their notices shortly — the city is having trouble attracting applicants to take their places. 


According to documents obtained by VoxPopuli, Ocoee’s fire department has seen a steady decline in job applications: in 2019, it fielded a total of 100 applications the entire year; in 2020, 86. To date, there’s been 77. For comparison, when the Winter Park Fire Department recently advertised open positions, it received 100 applications for five spots. When the Ocoee Fire Department advertised in August, it received exactly two applications.


WHAT DO OTHER FIRE DEPARTMENTS PAY?

Apopka

Starting Pay: $46,600 

Paramedic Incentive: $8,000


Clermont  

Starting Pay: $38,247.55 

Paramedic Incentive: $8,000


Kissimmee 

Starting Pay: $42,150  

Paramedic Incentive: $9,000 (new contract ratified Oct. 6)


Orange County 

Starting Pay: $46,311.20 

With 2+ yrs :  $47,712.80

Paramedic Incentive: $9,110.40

As of Oct. 2, 2022: $9752.80


Winter Garden 

Starting Pay: $40,941.47

Paramedic Incentive: $8,000


Winter Park 

Starting Pay: $43,750  

Paramedic Incentive: $9,750



Fact-based, Focused and Fearless Journalism

Everyone should have access to independent, factual and ethical reporting about local politics, government and community issues. That’s why we’re asking you to make a contribution and invest in community journalism. Even $1 helps make a difference. And your donation is TAX DEDUCTIBLE. Thank you.