City and firefighters union still at odds over pay increase, other contract elements

photo by: Nick Krug

In this file photo from Oct. 1, 2014, Capt. Brandon Holloman. left, firefighter Trey Strohm, and engineers Jason Ray and Aaron Payne, far right, work to dry off Engine 1 outside Firehouse No. 1 in downtown Lawrence.

Representatives for the City of Lawrence and the local firefighters union continue to disagree on how much of a wage increase is needed to keep firefighter pay competitive, and contract negotiations could soon require mediation.

Negotiations between the city and the union, Local 1596, are governed by a local resolution that states that whenever a contract is negotiated, the negotiations are automatically considered to be at an impasse if they aren’t concluded by July 1. City and union representatives have been meeting since April, but have yet to agree on a compensation plan and several other contract provisions. The parties were therefore required under the resolution to request the services of the U.S. government’s Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

The employment contract covers wages, benefits and working conditions for firefighters, fire engineers and fire lieutenants in the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Department, and it expires at the end of this year. Remaining sticking points include the level of pay raises, as well as other compensation-related aspects of the contract such as longevity pay, overtime pay and skill incentives.

The city’s proposal would maintain the existing pay plan, which includes the potential for up to a 5% pay increase for merit, and would provide a general wage increase of .5%. Assistant City Manager Casey Toomay said she thinks that proposal provides sufficient wages. She said the city’s other pay-related proposals attempt to bring firefighters’ compensation policies in line with those of other city employees.

“I think the city has put forth a proposal that has wages that are market competitive, and also tries to establish more internal equity (among) city employees,” Toomay said.

Seamus Albritton, the union’s vice president, said the union’s proposal is in line with the city’s recently completed compensation study that calls for market-based increases in employee pay. The union’s proposal would provide an annual wage increase based on the Consumer Price Index.

“We feel that’s most fair, just on the sense of, if the economy is booming, prices are going up, employee wages need to increase to adjust to that,” Albritton said. “While at the same time, if the economy is not doing well, that number will be lower.”

Toomay said the city has not yet calculated the difference in cost between the city’s proposals and those of the union.

At the beginning of negotiations, city representatives also said one of their priorities is reestablishing management rights that have been limited over the years through past contract negotiations. For instance, the current contract guarantees that fire department staff will have input on equipment and fire engine maintenance and replacement. The union wants that language to stay as is, while the city representatives want it taken out.

Toomay said that a mediation session has been requested but not yet scheduled, and that city and union representatives can continue to meet without a mediator until an appointment is set. She said that the city and the union have tentatively scheduled a nonmediated meeting for Wednesday. If the city and the union are still at an impasse 10 days after their session with the mediator, they will provide their final proposals to the City Commission, which will make the ultimate decision.

A summary of the some of the unresolved compensation-related proposals is as follows:

General wage adjustment:

• Current contract: Under the current pay structure, wages are organized into a pay plan with 24 tiers, or “steps.” Employees are eligible for annual increases based on merit and any general wage adjustment determined by contract negotiations. Employees receive an annual performance evaluation and could be eligible for either a 2.5% or 5% merit pay increase each year, depending on what step they’re on in the plan.

• City proposal: The city’s proposal would fund the current pay plan and provide for a 0.5% general wage adjustment for next year. The city is also proposing raising starting hourly pay for firefighters from $15.55 to $16.41 and for firefighter paramedics from $16.85 to $17.79.

• Lawrence Professional Firefighters proposal: In addition to the merit increases in the current pay plan, the union proposes establishing an annual general wage adjustment that mirrors the Consumer Price Index. The proposal notes the CPI for 2020 would be 1.9%.

Longevity pay:

• Current contract: Employees become eligible for longevity pay after the fifth year of employment. The pay is a discretionary item, considered annually by the City Commission, that takes the form of a check provided in December. The current contract states that employees will receive $4 of longevity pay per month of employment, with no cap on how much an employee can receive.

• City proposal: The city is proposing that longevity pay be calculated using the same structure adopted last year for other city employees, which caps the payments at $1,000. Longevity payments would be $250 for five to nine years of service, $500 for 10 to 14 years, $750 for 15 to 19 years and $1,000 for 20 or more years. The policy for other city employees eliminates longevity pay for those hired after Jan. 1, 2019, but the proposal for fire and medical employees would eliminate longevity pay for those hired after Jan. 1, 2020.

• Lawrence Professional Firefighters proposal: The union proposed no changes to the current contract related to longevity pay.

Overtime pay:

•Current contract: Employees receive overtime pay for hours worked in excess of the regular schedule, with any paid leave used during that pay cycle counting as hours worked in the calculation of overtime.

•City proposal: The city is proposing overtime rules be aligned with those for nonunion city employees, where only paid holidays count as hours worked in the calculation of overtime.

• Lawrence Professional Firefighters proposal: The union proposed no changes to the current contract related to overtime pay.

Skill incentives:

• Current contract: Employees who have worked full time for at least 2.5 years are eligible to receive pay increases for certain duties. There are 13 “skill incentives” for roles such as clothing supply clerk, coroner investigator and CPR coordinator. Each of these extra duties comes with a pay increase of 2.5% to 7.5%. The maximum amount of additional pay an employee can receive from skill incentives is capped at 15%.

• City proposal: The city proposes to cap the maximum additional pay from skill incentives at 7.5% instead of 15%. Employees who receive skill incentives above 7.5% on Jan. 1, 2020, will maintain those incentives until they expire or are no longer applicable due to assignment changes.

• Lawrence Professional Firefighters proposal: The union proposed no changes to the current contract related to skill incentives.


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