Ocoee, Fire Fighters Union reach contract agreement
Editor in Chief
Tuesday, October 3, 2023
A quick, smooth negotiation process yielded a collective bargaining agreement that satisfies both the city and the fire fighters' union.
Updated Oct. 5, 2023
The Ocoee city commission late last month, as part of its consent agenda, ratified a new three-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the city and the Professional Fire Fighters Local 3623, which represents Ocoee's fire fighter/paramedics/EMTs. The new CBA became effective October 1. It expires Sept. 30, 2026.
“It’s a fair agreement,” Professional Fire Fighters Local 3623 President Chris Atalski said in a phone interview. Atalski, an engineer, responsible for driving fire trucks, said the majority of union members voted in favor of the CBA.
A HISTORIC CBA
The new CBA is noteworthy on a number of levels. Negotiated over eight meetings within six months, this CBA came together in record time. The momentum allowed union leaders to present members with a new contract for a vote before the old one expired for the first time in 10 years. Atalski said they “made history.” (The last CBA (2017-2020) took two and a half years to negotiate and had expired by the time it was signed.)
“We had some 14 hour bargaining days. There were several nights we did not get out of city hall until nine o’clock,” he said.
Fire Chief Tom Smothers told VoxPopuli he was "happy" with the CBA. "I'm very happy with what everybody got and happy to have it in place before they voted."
Atalski credits the city’s negotiator, Assistant City Manager Craig Shadrix, for keeping the process moving.
“Craig continued to show us that he was motivated to get this signed and ready. I don't want to say he pushed us, but he just let us know he wanted it done instead of dragging it on like [the last negotiator] would. It was good for all of us to hear and see that the city was eager to get a contract signed.”
Shadrix told VoxPopuli he was pushing to get the CBA completed ahead of the 2023-2024 budget vote.
“For the first time in as long as I can remember, we got it done before the budget got adopted," he said. "I feel genuinely bad that they weren't getting raises when everybody else was. You know, these guys lay their life on the line, they're taking care of people that are in distress emotionally, physically. They have kids and they're not getting raises and they're still having to get up and come to work. So that was really important to me.”
Negotiations were also free of the acrimony that characterized prior bargaining sessions. (The 2020-2023 CBA negotiations became so intractable, a special magistrate was called. The union and city finally reached an agreement on the last day they could settle on their own and signed it December 17, 2021, nearly 15 months late.)
“The secret was they did it without lawyers,” District 3 Commissioner Richard Firstner, who served as Ocoee fire chief for 14 years, told VoxPopuli. “Craig Shadrix led the negotiations, and they trusted him.”
Shadrix said fielding a completely new negotiating team was "by design," and he believes it helped.
“Obviously neither side trusts one another because of how things have gone the past 10 years. I wanted to spend a lot of time listening to them, and they actually engaged in a perfect dialogue with us … They were willing, after we got through the first two or three meetings, they really were rolling their sleeves up with us and trying to figure things out. We ended up with something we both could live with. I thank them tremendously. It felt really good to get up and shake everybody's hand."
“Craig showed he was willing to understand what the problem was and have a solution or a resolution to it,” Atalski said. “It was nice to have our words listened to because we’re just so used to [the city] not caring.”
The new CBA also contains language that protects union members and officers against discrimination for joining the union. Union negotiators included this language because the last fire fighter/paramedic to hold the president’s job before Atalski took over, was terminated on the day he was elected. Many in the union believe he was fired for his union activities. He later won a wrongful termination suit against the city.
“We still have in the back of our minds that they wrongfully terminated our old president, and it could happen tomorrow to anybody,” Atalski said. “For that language to be put in there, it sets us at ease where maybe things are changing for the better, you know?”
FIXING WAGE COMPRESSION
While Shadrix said the city “dug in our heels” on management rights, “we gave in a lot of other areas.”
One of the union’s biggest wins was remedying the longstanding wage compression issue: fire fighters/paramedics with less time on the job making the same or nearly the same as senior staff or those who’d been in the same position longer.
The fix was to employ what’s called an industry-based competitive adjustment scale for the first year of the contract. As Atalski explained, there’s a formula for calculating wages: Number of years as a fire fighter x 2 + number of years at rank = standardized pay rate.
“We had a lot of issues in the past with raises being different, with promotion rates being different, so we had employees that were hired at the same time, in the same rank, but their pay was a little bit different. For once in the history of Ocoee, we’re getting paid based off our seniority or our dedication or loyalty to the city,” Atalski said.
Fire fighter/paramedics receive 3 percent raises in the last two years of the CBA.
So, what does that look like? In 2022-2023, new hires started at $44,565.50. With the new contract, new hires start at $47,239. Those who are paramedics add another $10,000 (up from $9,500) to their salaries, making it $57,239. For 2024-2025, that will climb to $48,656 ($58,656 for paramedics); for 2025-2026, it’s $50,116 ($60,116 for paramedics).
Ocoee’s fire department once was at the bottom of the pay scale, compared to similar-size departments in Clermont, Winter Garden, Winter Park and Orlando, considered a key factor in why Ocoee couldn't keep staff. Ocoee had been losing fire fighters like the fire department was on Ozempic. At one point in 2021, the department had only three people with 15-plus years experience and there were 10 vacancies, the equivalent of having 2.5 fire trucks out of service. Today, there are four vacancies. For Atalski, the salary increases help, but he is realistic.
“We’ll just have to see what the economy does and what other departments start at because we still have a problem with vacancies,” Atalski said. “It’s not as bad as it was, but a lot of departments are hiring.”
WHAT ELSE IS IN THE CONTRACT?
* A longer DROP. This acronym stands for deferred retirement option plan. When a fire fighter/paramedic reaches age 55 or 25 years with the department, whichever comes first, they can either retire or continue to work a number of extra years to beef up their pensions, with their paychecks going into their pension fund. The new CBA allows fire fighter/paramedics to continue to work eight more years, up from five.
* Equitable holiday pay. The union was able to demonstrate that compared to other city workers they were getting short-changed on holiday pay. They had already filed grievances and had an arbitration date to argue the issue. The new CBA accords them 18 hours of holiday pay. Plus, those working on a holiday receive additional time and a half while those who are compelled to work or who work overtime, receive additional double pay.
* Four off per shift. Now four fire fighter/paramedics can schedule time off per shift, up from three. “It's a big win for us. Now we got one more member that gets to be at home for the holidays with their family,” Atalski said. “It's something we've been trying to get for quite some time, so we're happy with that.”