OGDENSBURG — The city’s contract offer to firefighters, which was to remain confidential, has now been released — the latest development in the ongoing public battle between the city and its fire union over minimum staffing.
On Wednesday, City Manager Stephen P. Jellie confirmed that he extended an updated contract offer to the Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799, in order to resolve a slew of “disputed matters,” including the fire department’s minimum staffing agreement with the city, which is now the subject of a case pending in state Supreme Court in St. Lawrence County.
Mr. Jellie’s offer allowed all firefighters to keep their jobs, as five firefighters were notified the same day that they would be laid off, effective Jan. 1, if enough eligible firefighters did not accept the city’s $25,000 retirement incentive by the end of the calendar year.
Mr. Jellie also said Wednesday that he would not disclose further details about the offer.
“The details of this offer will be kept confidential between the parties as we work in good faith and respect during this challenging period,” he stated in an email Wednesday.
The fire union promptly rejected the offer Thursday in a blistering letter to their leadership, which union President Jason Bouchard shared publicly Friday.
Later Friday night, in an email to media, Mr. Jellie decided to share publicly the contract offer he extended to the fire union, after repeatedly saying it was to remain confidential.
Earlier Friday, Mr. Bouchard released his own statement on behalf of the union, which included a few, but not all, of the 16 items in the contract offer extended to him and his members.
The 16 items offered in the contract include:
1. The overall organization staffing level would remain at 24 firefighters, the number agreed to in the current contract as stated in the city and union’s minimum manning agreement.
The city, in passing its 2021 budget on Dec. 9, included reductions to the fire department budget and called for the layoffs of seven firefighters. The seven layoffs have been reduced to five as one firefighter has agreed to take the $25,000 retirement offer and a sixth firefighter is out on leave for an unspecified injury.
On Dec. 18, the union filed suit against the city in order to temporarily halt city officials from reducing the size of the fire department staff.
The city now has 27 firefighters, but factoring in the seven job cuts, 20 firefighters would remain, dipping below the 24-person minimum required by city and union’s minimum staffing agreement.
Judge Mary M. Farley on Dec. 28, denied the union’s request for a temporary restraining order preventing layoffs while the court case is pending, allowing the city to move forward with the layoffs.
2. The minimum daily staffing of the department would be reduced from five to four firefighters.
3. The new contract duration would be reduced by three years, from Jan. 1, 2020 to Jan. 21, 2022 — the same number of years as the last several contracts, according to Mr. Jellie, and gives City Council “the opportunity (to) negotiate as every other council has previous.”
4. The maximum personnel on scheduled vacation per shift would be reduced from two to one. The current contract allows for two firefighters on vacation per shift, which according to Mr. Jellie, doesn’t allow for one additional person to be off for training, sick, personal, etc. Mr. Jellie also said this is a proposal the union offered the city, which Mr. Bouchard has previously confirmed.
5. The shift structure would be altered to include one captain and five firefighters. According to Mr. Jellie, the assistant chief positions would be eliminated by attrition, as they are “no longer warranted for the size organization and personnel supervised.”
“One Captain (supervisor) for each work shift is entirely adequate,” he added.
6. The union’s vacation time would no longer be paid out annually; it would be scheduled and used annually.
According to Mr. Jellie, firefighters would work two 10-hour days, followed by two 14-hour nights, then be off for five consecutive days.
“Most do not need more vacation time so the city pays them for not using their vacation time,” Mr. Jellie said, “further adding to the average cost per employee of $131,000.”
It costs the city about $131,968 per firefighter annually, including salary and benefits, and the average annual salary of a city firefighter is $70,767.
7. Sick leave usage bonuses would be removed. According to Mr. Jellie, the city provides paid sick leave to all firefighter personnel, then is required to pay a bonus if personnel doesn’t use it annually. Firefighter personnel is required to pay the city for a portion of it, if it remains unused when they retire.
8. Free supplemental disability insurance would be removed. The city, in its current contract with the union, provides free supplemental disability insurance to all firefighter personnel. According to Mr. Jellie, “no other city employees receive this for free.”
9. “Out of title work” would be eliminated for less than three consecutive shifts. Currently, if a firefighter acts as a captain or a captain acts an assistant chief for one shift — out of their title — they receive the title’s rate of pay.
10. Overtime training would be removed entirely. According to Mr. Jellie, fire department employees would be paid overtime, their choice of pay or compensation time, like “any other overtime worked.”
He added that this “training overtime” is compensatory, or “comp,” time at 1½ times the hours worked, and “it is not needed and creates more overtime when employees take time off without regard to staffing.”
11. Comp time usage would only be approved if it will not cause overtime, and all comp time that goes unused would be paid out quarterly.
The use of comp time is not regulated to maintain staffing, according to Mr. Jellie. When an employee uses comp time, “it can be taken without regard to staffing levels which almost always creates an overtime opportunity for another firefighter.”
Employees are currently allowed to save comp time and cash it in on demand, or at the end of year, making it “impossible” to budget for, he added.
12. Personal leave would only be approved if it will not cause overtime.
“The city desires to have all leave that is not part of the annual vacation leave, subject to staffing requirements so as not to increase overtime expense,” Mr. Jellie said.
13. Holiday pay would only be applicable if a firefighter works on a holiday, as firefighters currently get paid holiday pay whether they work the holiday or not.
14. The EMT stipend would no longer be paid, effect Jan. 1, 2021.
“EMT certification and training is part of the requirement of the job,” Mr. Jellie said. “Firefighter personnel are paid almost double what the average EMT is paid in this area. No stipend is warranted.”
Mr. Bouchard has confirmed this is a point the union is willing to compromise on.
15. Hazard pay would only be paid for any shift that operates for longer than two hours below four firefighters on staff. According to Mr. Jellie, the current contract has personnel being paid if the assigned number of personnel on a shift falls below six, but the minimum daily staffing is five firefighters.
“There is no hazard, this is just another perk,” he added.
16. All references to code enforcement would be removed, as “this is an assignment of work.”
“The (current) contract attempts to make the assignment of code enforcement work optional,” Mr. Jellie said. “(But) assignment of work is a management right.”
The current contract with the fire union was “hastily” agreed to in November 2019 by a majority City Council, Mr. Jellie said.
“The residents of the City of Ogdensburg are now paying a heavy price for these irresponsible and vindictive actions masterminded for the sole purpose of tying the hands of the 2020 City Council and, resulting in unaffordable compensation for firefighters and the attempted removal of managements legal right to control the size of a major city department,” Mr. Jellie said in his Friday email with contract details. “This is not how efficient government works, this is how bad government works.”
Oral arguments in the fire union’s pending court case are set to take place virtually beginning at 10:15 a.m. on Jan. 8.