City fires back at ‘unfair bargaining’ claim

Ocean City Town Seal

In its formal response to the unfair labor practice complaint filed last week by the local firefighters union, the Town of Ocean City strongly denied claims of bad faith bargaining during negotiations of a new contract that includes a new shift schedule for firefighter and EMS personnel.

The city’s legal counsel, Marc Sloane of Miles & Stockbridge in Baltimore, said in the 38-page response that the goal of the complaint lodged by Chapter 4269 of the International Association of Fire Fighters’ complaint is to “inflame public opinion.”

It also asserted that disagreeing on something, which in this case is the city’s desire to eliminate 24-hour shifts in favor of 12-hour shifts, does not constitute a failure to bargain.

“The IAFF is attempting to turn this matter into a fight concerning who is right regarding the 24-hour shift issue,” Sloane wrote in the response’s cover letter.

The response was submitted Monday, a week after the IAFF’s counsel David Gray Wright of Kahn, Smith & Collins, P.A. filed the union’s grievance. That same day, nearly a hundred firefighters and supporters flooded the council chambers.

Six supporters urged the mayor and City Council to reconsider their stance on union contract’s major point of contention: the city’s plan to do away with the long-standing schedule of 24 hours on duty followed by three days off.

Unswayed by the union’s argument, Ocean City officials proceeded on March 1 with a “best and final offer” contract that includes 12-hour shifts, citing reasons such as fatigue concerns, delayed responses and missed calls. The proposed shifts will begin in October 2017 to give emergency personnel time to adjust.

Now, the city’s rebuttal contends, the union is attempting to use the unfair bargaining claim to take the matter to binding interest arbitration, a right the union does not have in its collective bargaining agreement.

The 20-page complaint against the city, however, argues that the mayor and council’s contract proposal with 12-hour shifts represents a “power-grab by the Town” who wanted to “be the first to try a new shift rotation,” no matter how inconsistent it is with other industry standards, including rest periods.

The union further contended that the shift change is designed to “to get more work from Fire/EMS personnel.”

The union’s claim that the city’s desire to end the 24/72 shift schedule came out of nowhere is also disputed by the city’s labor negotiators. City officials have pointed out that under the current contract, which went into effect July 1, 2013, the union agreed that new employees could be scheduled to work in four-week cycles of 36 and 48 hours per week broken into different shifts. Whether they stuck with the plan depends on who is talking.

“There were about eight to nine new hires in this contract, and they worked the 12-hour shift for months, but then they were moved to the 24-hour shift,” said Union President Ryan Whittington.

The city, however, says more than one-third of current employees were subject to this shift change when negotiations began this year. Sloane’s response to the charges also suggested that the union’s resistance to the shift change could have some basis in the desire of some employees to work another job on their off days.

“It should also be noted that nearly half the employees work at a second job, and the move away from 24-hour shifts would impact their ability to have secondary employment,” he said in his rebuttal.

At the heart of the city’s position on shift changes is a concern about response times. The city’s counsel said there have been five occasions of delayed responses to emergency calls since 2012. Employees slept through the alarm on two of those calls and one of those incidents resulted in an eight-minute delay, Sloane said in his reply.

“The IAFF shockingly asserted the five delayed calls were insignificant!” Sloane’s rebuttal said.

As for the union’s contention that city government has been unfair, it alleges that Ocean City failed and refused to provide information relevant to the contract negotiations upon requests in November and February. According to the city, it provided hundreds of pages of information, even though the requests were “overbroad and objectionable.”

Even so, it was not until three months later when the complaint was filed that the IAFF said that Ocean City’s responses were insufficient, Sloane argued.

“Through the IAFF’s actions and comments, it is clear that no amount of information would have changed [its] position on non-24-hour shifts,” the city’s response said.

City and labor representatives met four out of the seven scheduled meetings. By mid-February negotiations appeared to break down, according to official documents. On Feb. 11, according to the city’s rebuttal, the union told the city’s negotiators that there were no plans to leave the 24-hour schedule.

In addition, the city representatives said that the IAFF canceled the following bargaining session because its members were running out of union leave and were unwilling to meet without being paid.

Bolstering its argument that the union, not the city, caused the end of the meetings, Sloane said that during the Feb. 18 bargaining session, Whittington read a statement that said if Ocean City insists on moving away from 24-shifts, “there was nothing to talk about.”

The union claims that it was still willing to continue bargaining, even though it was clear it would not back away from its stand on the 24-hour shifts.

Sloane said Wright sent a letter stating that the union would not move off the old shifts and intended to keep fighting and appeal to Ocean City’s leaders.

“It could be a long fight. There might be much uncertainty and animosity ahead,” Wright wrote in a letter dated Feb. 24.

Sloane then responded with a letter stating that counsel “was disappointed that the IAFF chose to stonewall rather than work with the Town.” He also said that there was no reason for the last scheduled meeting since both parties could not reach an accord.

Ultimately, the union complaint proposed taking the matter to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service or the American Arbitration Association for binding arbitration.

“The … complaint is a thinly veiled attempt to get the third party to decide that a 24/72 shift is ‘better’ than the Town’s 12-hour shift schedule,” Sloane replied.

The city also claims that the grievance was improperly filed with Labor Commissioner Buck Mann, instead of a designated third-party agency, and must be dismissed.

“The IAFF, through its pleadings and statements to the press, has attempted to turn this matter into a referendum on which shift schedule is better,” said the city’s response. “That is not the issue before this tribunal, and may not be decided by this tribunal.”

Union and city representatives met through the Labor Committee on March 11, but that committee cannot be used for collective bargaining, because the city code states that negotiating must take place between November 1 and March 1.

According to the city’s response, any agreement reached must be presented to the Mayor and City Council for approval by April 15.

The new union contract, which for now is the “best and last offer,” will go in effect July 1, 2016.