Arbitrator sides with city over wages

Eugene Springfield fire patch

A state arbitrator has awarded Eugene and Springfield municipal firefighters a 10 percent wage increase over three years, siding with the city administrations in the dispute. The firefighters had wanted 10 percent in increases over two years.

The new labor pact, retroactive to July 1, 2015, is the first to jointly cover unionized Eugene and Springfield firefighters since the two city fire departments merged.

The now-merged union, International Association of Firefighters Local 851, which represents about 230 firefighters, had been operating without a contract since July.

“It was business,” Mike Caven, the union’s president, said of the binding decision.

Under state law, firefighters and law enforcement personnel can’t strike in labor disputes. Instead, their contracts, if not settled by the sides, are decided by a state arbitrator.

“Both cities … worked corroboratively in an amiable negotiation with the union,” the cities said in a statement. “From a total of 38 articles, the arbitration represents only two articles (wages and contract duration) that the cities and IAFF did not agree on.”

Even though the firefighters did not get what they wanted, the decision continues a trend of steadily increasing compensation for them.

A fire captain at the top of the salary range will get an annual base salary raise of nearly $8,700 — to $95,618, from $86,925 — through the duration of the new contract. A top-step firefighter would earn $7,923 more a year, rising to $80,216, from $72,924.

Newer firefighters are eligible to receive step increases each year upon a satisfactory job evaluation until they reach the top of the salary range for their position. The new contract doesn’t increase the number of steps, now six, but the base salary at each step will increase.

Firefighters also are eligible to receive overtime, and many get it.

Including overtime, about 50 union-represented members of the joint Eugene/Springfield fire department were paid more than $100,000 a year in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015, according to salary data provided previously by Eugene in response to a Register-Guard public records request.

The city estimates the cost of the three years of wage increases under the new contract will total nearly $7.2 million, including more than $1.2 million in the first year.

“Interest and welfare”

State law requires arbitrators weigh the “interest and welfare of the public” in deciding a labor dispute.

The term is undefined, so arbitrators turn to secondary factors, including the financial ability of a government agency to pay, its ability to attract and keep qualified personnel, and a comparison with what similar communities in the state pay peer employees.

The arbitrator, Paul Gordon, found in his 24-page decision released last month that the cities’ offer best serves the public interest.

The union had argued that the cities are in sound financial health and have the ability to pay more.

The union said its two-year proposal would improve recruiting and alleviate a “recent, urgent retention problem” as experienced firefighters have either moved or are moving to other fire departments in the Willamette Valley that pay more and have lighter workloads.

The cities disputed that the department had recruiting or retention problems, noting that all but one of the fewer than a dozen firefighters who left the department in recent years had gone to Portland-area departments that generally pay higher wages and benefits.

The cities argued that their offer of pay increases of 3.5 percent in each of years one and two and 3 percent in year three is more than any of the cities’ six other unions received during a three-year period since the 2007-08 budget year.

The firefighters had received base wage increases totaling nearly 11 percent in that three-year contract.

Starting with that contract, union members began paying the so-called employee share of contributions to the state’s retirement system for public employees that previously the cities had paid.

Paid less on average

The arbitrator noted that Eugene-Springfield firefighters are being paid less, on average, then their peers in comparable communities.

The cities acknowledged their financial condition has improved but said revenue growth has only been moderate, and they’ll be paying millions of dollars more in contributions to the state retirement system for public employees in coming years. Like other municipal workers, the Eugene-Springfield firefighters are covered by the state public employee retirement system.

Police, fire and emergency medical services take up the largest share of Eugene’s general fund operating budget. For the current fiscal year, the city’s fire and emergency medical services budget is $27.6 million, up from $25.1 million three years ago. Compensation increases account for almost all of the rise.

Caven noted that two weeks after city officials testified about the city’s tight financial condition at the arbitration hearing, the city disclosed the estimated cost of the new City Hall had risen by $7 million, which makes it “tough to buy whether or not they can afford a competitive wage package.”

Gordon concluded that while the cities’ economies are improving, municipal revenue growth is still slow and the union proposal outpaces that growth, putting “unreasonable strains on (the cities’) ability to meet their obligations and priorities.”

He concluded that the department can attract qualified recruits with its existing wages and benefits and found that retention is “not an urgent problem” given the number of firefighters who have left the department in recent years is still relatively small. He noted that a large number of firefighters — which the cities pegged at 207 ­— are at the top of their pay range, giving them a larger incentive to stay.

Different comparisons

The union and cities disagreed on the list of Oregon cities to use for wage comparisons. The union’s list included larger cities, while the cities’ list included smaller cities.

The arbitrator agreed that the union’s list offered a better comparison given that Eugene-Springfield area firefighters serve a combined population of 238,000. He said the area firefighters are not earning as much as those peers, on average. The comparable cities include Milwaukie, Salem and Gresham.

Overall, however, Gordon concluded that the cities’ offer best serves the public interest.

The new contract isn’t entirely settled.

Eugene and Springfield firefighters have different health insurance plans and benefits as they remain employees of their respective cities.

The contract allows either party to reopen negotiations on insurance coverage once a study is finished and if the two sides agree on a single health insurance package. The cities and union jointly are paying for the study, which will take about two months to complete.

Further implications

The award has implications for another union.

In 2014, the 10 battalion chiefs for Eugene-Springfield Fire created a separate union. That union also includes the department’s chief of emergency medical service and its assistant fire marshal. All the employees had previously not been represented by a union.

That union will retroactively receive the same 3.5 percent wage increase as awarded in the first year of the new contract for the firefighters.

They are also in line to receive an additional 2 percent wage increase starting July 1.

The total estimated cost of the wage increases for the current and next budget years for that new union is $187,000.

Curbing cost increases

Eugene and Springfield gradually have merged their fire departments in part to try to curb increasing costs. The main cost-curb tool has been eliminating overlapping positions. The merger took its final operational step in August 2014 when the departments integrated their crews, so Springfield firefighters can work in Eugene and vice versa.

The cities say the 13 eliminated administrative positions amount to a $1.5 million annual saving.

“The IAFF bargaining unit remains at the lower half of their comparables (in other cities) and, technically, the savings from the merger continue to increase due to the fact that the 13 vacant positions are not receiving raises,” acting Fire Chief Joe Zaludek wrote in an email.

The union represents firefighters, higher-level engineers, captains, deputy fire marshals and training officials. All fire responders are trained to handle medical emergencies, by far the department’s biggest source of service calls, and 75 percent of them are certified paramedics.

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