OGDENSBURG — The stalemate between the city and its fire union has gone a step further as a second rejected contract offer, said to remain confidential until a response was received, has been released by city management.
In an email to the Times over the weekend, City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie shared the details of the second and final contract offer the city extended to Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799, on Jan. 3. After a week of silence from the union, members unanimously rejected the offer late Sunday afternoon, about 30 minutes after a previously set 4 p.m. deadline. The deadline was set Saturday night as Mr. Jellie said he and city management felt the union was not taking the contract offer “seriously.”
The second offer has now been withdrawn by the city.
The first contract offer, in an attempt to level with the union, was extended before the new year, but was rejected almost immediately by union members. They sent a blistering letter to their president, Jason T. Bouchard, who later shared the letter with media.
The first contract offer was said to remain confidential, but after the letter was made public, Mr. Jellie released the 16-point contract in its entirety. The details of the second offer were said to remain confidential “until the parties accept or reject the offer entirely.”
Mr. Jellie said Monday that the union’s rejection of the second offer is an attempt to make sure the contract spans the life of the city’s current council. He’s previously said the union’s current contract was “hastily” agreed upon by a 2019 City Council about two weeks after the election.
The duration of the union’s current contract is six years.
Mr. Jellie has proposed the contract be cut by 47 months, which Mr. Bouchard and union members won’t accept as they are currently in a contract with the city until Dec. 31, 2025.
“The union believes we signed a contract that can’t be broken,” Mr. Jellie said.
Mr. Bouchard offered a rebuttal.
“(In the) fall of this year, we’d be back with the same group that wants us to be a volunteer force,” he said Monday of the proposal to cut the contract duration.
“They voted to break our contract,” he added. “I don’t understand why we would trust them.”
The second contract offer has 13 points, compared to the first contract offer’s 16 points. Of the 13 items listed, one item was altered, which is the “out of title work” provision. In the first contract offer, it was proposed that out of title work would be eliminated for less than three consecutive shifts. The second contract offer brought that number down to two 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.
The three items omitted from the second offer include the contract’s duration, compensation, or “comp,” time, as well as personal leave time.
In the first contract, the city proposed 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.”
Comp time usage, as stated in the first contract offer, would only be approved as long as it doesn’t 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,” he said in the first offer.
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.
The third provision not included in the second contract offer is personal leave, which in the first contract offer would only be approved as long as it doesn’t 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 previously said.
The 13 remaining points of 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 and its fire union have been at odds for more than two months after the city introduced and passed its 2021 budget, which included the elimination of seven firefighter positions. When the budget was passed Dec. 9, the city had 27 firefighters, but factoring in the seven job cuts, 20 firefighters were to remain, dipping below the 24-person minimum required by the city and union’s minimum staffing agreement.
Last month, five layoff noticed were issued as, at the time, one fire captain has opted to retire. Since the notices were issued, two more have opted for retirement.
On Dec. 18, the union filed suit in state Supreme Court in St. Lawrence County against the city in order to temporarily halt city officials from reducing the size of the fire department staff. Judge Mary M. Farley rejected the temporary restraining order 10 days later. On Friday, the case’s oral arguments were heard, which led to Judge Farley striking down the union’s preliminary injunction — a request to reinstate five laid-off firefighters.
2. The minimum daily staffing of the department would be reduced from five to four firefighters.
3. 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.
4. 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.”
5. The union’s vacation time would no longer be paid out annually; it would be scheduled and used annually.
As stated in the first contract offer of the same provision, 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 previously said, “further adding to the average cost per employee of $131,000.”
It costs the city about $131,00 per firefighter annually, including salary and benefits, and the average annual salary of a city firefighter is $70,767.
6. Sick leave usage bonuses would be removed.
7. 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.”
8. “Out of title work” would be eliminated for less than two consecutive shifts.
9. Overtime training would be removed entirely.
Mr. Jellie has previously said this “training overtime” is 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.”
10. 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.
11. The EMT stipend would no longer be paid, effect Jan. 1.
“EMT certification and training is part of the requirement of the job,” Mr. Jellie has previously 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.
12. 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’s previously said.
13. All references to code enforcement would be removed, as “this is an assignment of work.”