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Who pays for Ocoee’s paramedic training?

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Friday, August 13, 2021


Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

Ocoee Professional Fire Fighters Local 3623 members Jordan Mieras (L) and lead union negotiator Ron Tosi at the collective bargaining session with the city on August 13 at Ocoee's City Hall.

Updated 5:23 p.m.:  At Friday's collective bargaining session, the city of Ocoee clarified its paramedic education proposal, offering to pay for "a minimum of four" paramedics to be trained each year, with the possibility of adding more if the budget allowed. The city's proposal also returned the union's half of the supplemental pension money, known as 175 Money, that the state gives the city for maintaining its own fire department. The city had based its claim to 100 percent of the 175 Money in perpetuity on a 2017 consent agreement the union has long disputed. The money is derived from the 1.75 percent of the tax that Florida collects on homeowners’ insurance policies. Under Florida statute, if there's disagreement over how the money is to be divided, the city and union split it equally.

Ocoee’s unionized firefighters will sit down Friday with city negotiators for round five of contract talks, and one of the still-to-be-resolved issues on the bargaining table is paramedic education. More precisely: who pays for it?

Ocoee requires that new firefighters become certified paramedics within two years of their hiring. Currently, employees pay for their own training, which firefighters say can cost from $7,500 to $10,000, depending on the program. And while the city offers tuition reimbursement for classes taken in pursuit of associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees, the fast-track paramedic training doesn’t qualify for remuneration.

Union officials say it’s that tuition hit combined with the $13.74 an hour starting salary (or a $40,000 annual salary) that's fueling the 50 percent turnover rate among firefighters in their first three years at the Ocoee Fire Department.

“They get their first paycheck, and they’re like I can’t live off this!” said Chris Atalski, president of Ocoee Professional Fire Fighters Local 3623. “A lot of them don’t have $10,000 to put down on school so they get on a payment plan or find grants. The ones that don’t get assistance end up staying for two years, then going to another department. Or they sit around for three years, don’t go to paramedic school and wait till they’re terminated.”

Walt remembers the days when a third of his salary went to cover his paramedic training. He scraped by on $26,000, too busy juggling work and school to squeeze in a second job the way most firefighters do to make ends meet. “You just don’t have the time for it while you’re in medic school,” said Walt who did not want to use his real name because of fear of retaliation from fire department and city officials. “You’re on shift one day, in a lecture the next day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then the next day you’re in a 12- to 15-hour clinical, and then you’re back on shift. It’s a constant rotation for a full year.”

Sometimes firefighters on the hook for tuition resort to finding money in other ways. “We had a guy who sold his plasma once a week so he could pay his bills,” Walt said. “He was paying for medic school; rent in this area was $1,500 a month; he had a car payment, insurance. He was making $75 every session. If he could convince somebody to go with him, he made $150. That was his grocery money.”

The union’s position is that since the city is mandating paramedic certification, the city should pay for it. Not every city pays for training, however. Clermont, for instance, does not. But Winter Garden, similar in size to Ocoee, pays for the education of its paramedics and EMTs with no stipulated time frame in which to complete it. Nor does Winter Garden insist its firefighter/paramedics sign a contract to work for the city for a specified time period as a giveback after training is completed. Winter Garden Fire Chief Jose P. Gainza, Jr. said his firefighters tend to stick around anyway. “We don’t have the retention problems Ocoee has,” he said.

Funding some but not all 

The proposal that Ocoee has offered its firefighters during these contract negotiations allows for funding “up to four” paramedics’ training as the budget permits.

“It’s in our best interest to get paramedics trained,” attorney Jeffrey E. Mandel, regional managing partner of the law firm Fisher Phillips LLP and the city’s negotiator, said at the July 26 bargaining session. He added that the city wanted to maintain some financial flexibility “as a failsafe in case of a worst-case scenario.”

Currently the fire department has 12 firefighters that require training. City Manager Robert Frank did not respond to an email asking how the city would decide which firefighter would have their training paid for. Mandel emailed back, saying that question was “to be addressed by the parties at the bargaining table and not through the press.”

The idea of paying paramedic education rankles Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson. “When I go to college for a degree, I’ve got to pay for that degree to get that job that I wanted to get,” he told VoxPopuli recently. “We pay them extra for that. That ain’t in the $40,000.”

Ocoee’s paramedics do earn an additional $8,500 a year (about $2.75 more an hour) — on top of a starting salary of $40,000. This means a new firefighter/paramedic would make $16.65 an hour. In a new three-year contract, the union is proposing 3-percent raises in the first year, followed by 5.5 percent in the second year, and 5 percent in the third. The city has countered with increases of 3 percent, 4.5 percent and 4 percent, with a cap on salaries. The union has argued that a salary cap would ultimately reduce pensions for retired firefighters.

What's a firefighter worth?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the national average for firefighter salaries at $27.09 an hour. In Florida, the average firefighter/paramedic wage is $22.59 an hour and for firefighters it's $13.69, according to Indeed, the job search site. But Indeed's figures are an average of salaries over the past 36 months and don't reflect how the post-pandemic labor market has shifted. Florida's $15 minimum wage may still be five years away, but many job sectors have seen wage spikes as businesses scramble to fill openings. As the Washington Post reported recently, non-management restaurant workers, supermarket and office supply store workers, parking lot attendants, janitors and daycare and eldercare workers have all gotten recent pay boosts to $15 an hour or above. 

Of course, firefighters face many hazards oher workers don't, such as running into burning buildings.  

But Johnson had no patience for that reasoning. “How many burning buildings they been in? Maybe two in the last year?” he said. “The guy who’s got the gun on his hip is the one I’m worried about going into places.”

Collective bargaining talks start at 9 a.m. today at Ocoee City Hall (150 N. Lakeshore Dr.) in Conference Room 109. The meeting is open to the public. 

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