Ocala, Florida — On July 10, the Marion County Board of County Commissioners offered a contract to firefighters and paramedics that provided wage increases of $2 per hour for paramedics and $1 per hour for EMTs.
According to the county’s Facebook page, the offer comes with a price tag of approximately $3.1 million.
However, labor leaders with the Professional Firefighters of Marion County believe the contract comes with a much more significant cost.
According to the Professional Firefighters of Marion County, the contract offer would initially come with a pay cut.
“On October 1, 2014, our employees received a three percent across the board pay increase due to language in our contract that expired September 30, 2014,” Ryan O’Reilly, public relations director for the fire and EMS union said. “In [this new] proposal, they eliminate the article that allowed this to happen, which would essentially eliminate that pay bump. For me, I would lose 39 cents an hour.”
Public Information Manager Barbra Hernández disagrees.
Hernández said, “The proposed contract would not require a pay cut of any kind, nor would employees forfeit the three percent they received in 2014.”
O’Reilly said that other employees would get considerable retroactive pay as well as other increases for becoming paramedics.
“According to their new pay structure, newly certified paramedics would actually receive pay increases of $12,000 to $15,000 per year,” O’Reilly said. “This would put a great burden on the budget since it was not accounted for in their proposal, and would create a situation where brand new paramedics would make more money than the senior guys who trained them.”
Hernández said , “The proposed contract reads: newly-certified employees who successfully complete the State Paramedic program and upon date of certification, shall have $3 per hour added to their base hourly rate. This is equivalent to approximately $9,000 per year.”
Union leaders said they are unsure about some of the language in the contract, and they feel that the contract was rushed.
“It’s a hurried contract and written sloppy,” O’Reilly said. “This plan has a lot of unintended consequences, and I am not about gotcha’ moments, or taking advantage of a poorly written offer. We have more work to do.”
O’Reilly said county negotiators also wanted “things” in return for this cash offer.
He said that if firefighters accepted this deal, it would eliminate the current pay plan that provides regular raises tied to education and experience.
“We already have a pay plan in our contract. But when the economy crashed we agreed to put those raises on hold nearly six years ago,” O’Reilly explained. “Now the economy is back, and [the BOCC] wants to make sure we have to beg for money every year.”
Hernández said, “The proposed contract would eliminate the current technical ladder that has been frozen in the contract for the past several years. It is the intent of the county to work with the union toward pay bands for a future contract.”
Union leaders also believe that the county’s offer eliminates a minimum-staffing clause that has been around for approximately a decade. Firefighters say that this would directly affect their safety and their ability to save lives. But also, the number of firefighters who could respond to a fire directly would affect the amount of money homeowners and business pay for insurance.
“The proposed contract eliminated a portion of the article that addressed minimum staffing due to the fact that the county does not budget staffing the way the contract reads,” Hernández said.
Labor leaders say that the county further demanded that if first responders become ill and could not recover fast enough, that [the BOCC] wants the right to be able to fire them if they are absent for 18 months in a 24-month period.
“Firefighters get cancer, among other diseases, faster and at more alarming rates than the general population and cancer is not covered as work related in Florida,” O’Reilly said. “To think that after putting [their lives] on the line protecting the citizens of Marion County that our administration would want to throw us to wolves, is reprehensible.”
Hernández told Ocala Post that the proposed contract does have language that clarifies the amount of time an employee could be out on a leave of absence. She said the leave of absence should not exceed 19 months in a 24-month period.
According to union leaders, the county has also refused to work with firefighters to prevent cancer and heart related disease through changes in current practices and providing early detection.
O’Reilly said, “It has been shown that early detection and prevention reduces sick leave, reduces workers’ comp claims, and reduces insurance cost. Yet we cannot make any movement on these issues.”
Hernández said that although the state of Florida does not currently recognize cancer as a compensable occupational disease for firefighters, the county has been actively researching the benefits of Life Scan as proposed by the Fire Union. According to Hernández, firefighters currently receive an annual exam that includes a physical exam, EKG, spirometry, audiometry, urinalysis, lab work, periodic chest x-rays, and stress testing.
“Looking over the entire package, there is nothing in it that retains the skilled firefighter paramedic. It would appear they are committed to only retaining this revolving door,” O’Reilly said.
In a counter offer, firefighters asked that EMTs only initially get 25 cents an hour and paramedics get 50 cents an hour, on the condition that the county incrementally return a pay structure that allows for wage increases in the future.
“Everyone knows there is a problem in this department, but throwing money at it is not the answer,” O’Reilly said. “And this is why people dislike government so much. Instead of working together and finding solutions, the politicians indiscriminately dump cash on it. That is bad for the department, bad for the employees, and bad for the taxpayers.”
O’Reilly said, “All we are asking for is a pay plan that rewards experience, encourages retention, and that accomplishes this over time. We don’t need a money dump.”