Cumberland Times-News

October 3, 2013

Firefighters’ union sues city over contract talks

Matthew Bieniek
Cumberland Times-News

— CUMBERLAND — The city is facing a lawsuit over contract negotiations with the union representing city firefighters, according to city officials.

The International Association of Firefighters, Local 1715, filed the suit in Allegany County Circuit Court, said City Administrator Jeff Rhodes. The city and firefighters have been unable to reach an agreement with the city on several issues, with the most serious point of disagreement being the city’s desire to make a change in health care coverage for employees.

“We got to the tipping point with the city,” said Ken McKenzie, president of the Cumberland IAFF Local 1715. “We can’t get them to negotiate,” McKenzie said.

The purpose of the court action is to force the city into mediation because an impasse has been reached, said McKenzie. The city maintains there is no impasse and there might not even be a contract requiring mediation. The last contract expired in 2011, but includes a renewal clause. If a current contract does not exist, the requirement for mediation doesn’t exist, said one of the attorneys representing the city, Jeff Blomquist. The city also takes the position that an impasse has not been reached, since core issues, not only the health insurance issues, have yet to be negotiated. Because the language of the previous contract was ambiguous, it’s unclear if the contract is in force, said Blomquist. The city is willing to engage in negotiations, Blomquist said.

The primary issue on the table is the desire of the city  to switch health care packages from Blue Cross Blue Shield to CIGNA. According to city officials, the change from BCBS to CIGNA will allow employees a broader choice of doctors at a lower premium. The change would save the city “several hundred thousands of dollars” if the change was made for all city employees, Rhodes said, and that would mean lower premiums for employees, Rhodes said.

That health care change has already been accepted by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents city police officers, and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represent city public works and clerical employees.

Rhodes answered several questions posed by the Times-News, but said he was unable to answer two questions at the present time. Rhodes was asked whether the current contract with firefighters had expired and whether the health insurance issue was the only unresolved issue with the firefighters.

The city’s financial position and the future of contracts with firefighters are at issue, Rhodes said.

“Given the fiscal realities facing the city, the city cannot make further concessions in exchange for the health care coverage. ... The ...health care plan would save the city, the employees and ultimately our taxpayers a considerable amount of money,” Rhodes said. In addition, the city says the language of past contracts has led to problems.

Past collective bargaining agreements have caused unnecessary friction between the administration and the firefighters and have contained language that is ambiguous and calls into question the ability of the city to make changes (such as the health care agreement), Rhodes said.

No hearing has yet been scheduled on the lawsuit to his knowledge, Rhodes said. The city continues to recognize the IAFF as the bargaining unit for firefighters, Rhodes said.

McKenzie explained the union’s position to the Times-News recently.

“We want to help the city save money, but we want to address some of our issues as well,” said McKenzie.

The IAFF local, according to McKenzie, wants to see the funds, saved by a health plan change, used to maintain staffing of the fire department.

“We want to work with a 13-member staff,” said McKenzie.

Budgetary issues and compliance with previous agreements on overtime expenses are causing the firefighters to operate with 12 employees per shift, according to McKenzie.

McKenzie said that the IAFF has other demands and that they are safety-related concerns, primarily having an adequate number of personnel whan running calls, McKenzie said Thursday.

Matthew Bieniek can be contacted at mbieniek@times-news.com.