For the first time since 2011, Flagler County’s firefighters will be working under a current contract, and most of them will be paid a little better than they have been. For nearly four years, Flagler County Fire Rescue’s 73 firefighters had been working under a contract that expired in September 2011. The Flagler County Commission approved the new, three-year contract on Monday. The firefighters’ union membership had ratified the contract in a previous vote, with 73 percent of its membership approving.
“We got a contract ratified, that’s what we wanted to have happened, for the most part. It’s a step in the right direction,” Stephen Palmer, president of the Flagler County Professional Firefighters Association, the firefighters’ union, said. “We all got along, did the right thing. There was no animosity, it was very smooth. Like anybody, we’d have liked the decompression plan be more aggressive, but we understand with the economics the way they are and the economy just coming back up, no one wanted to commit to anything. But it’s a step in the right direction.”
The “decompression plan” Palmer was referring to is at the heart of the new contract. A decompression plan is a euphemism for giving some firefighters more money than others, based on their years of service. It became necessary because, as Palmer described it, for some nine years, and through the Great Recession, a number of firefighters were hired at the same rate of pay as existing firefighters with many more years of service. Thus, wages were “compressed.” The new contract “decompresses” those wages—that is, it will grant progressively larger paychecks to firefighters with more experiences.
The increases will be awarded over the next four years, resulting in a net $228,000 budget increase.
For example, seven firefighters with nine years of service for Flagler County Fire Rescue are today making between $44,000 and $47,000. Over the next four years, their pay will increase annually by an average of $1,400 a year for most, so that by year four, they will all be making $49,000. Firefighters will fewer years’ service will see increases too, but in lesser amounts. For example, four firefighters now making $43,000 will see their wages increase progressively to $44,500 by year four. That’s excluding any potential cost of living increases that may take place along the way, or any additional pay raises the county may award.
Better pay for some with more years of service, but no across-the-board raises.
For the fire department’s most senior members—13 rank and file firefighters, all with between 11 and 27 years of service—the decompression plan either applies marginally if at all, with most getting a $500 increase. (The full chart listing every firefighter and his or her expected pay increases is here or at the foot of this story, toward the bottom of the document.)
The rest of the contract is the same as it was four years ago, with four exceptions. The base pay of field training officers is increased. The military leave provision was changed from granting employees 17 days in any given year for military service, to 240 hours (in line with a federal requirement). For bereavement leave, the previous contract gave employees time off with pay if they had to travel out of state. The new contract pouts a 200-mile threshold instead of an arbitrary state border for that provision, so traveling to nearby Georgia doesn’t trigger leave time while traveling to Miami does not (as was the case previously). And a new wellness program will be implemented.
Commissioners had a few questions about the new contract, namely, the way the wellness program and employee fitness may apply in case a firefighter doesn’t meet certain benchmarks.
“In those standards they have remedial practices that they have to meet,” Fire Chief Don Petito said. “They give them certain timelines to meet those. But in those regulations there’s also disqualifiers for being a firefighter. Some of the major ones are diabetic, epilepsy, stuff like that. So there are certain disqualifiers that can be remediated through training, through seeing a dietitian, through seeing other practitioners. There are remedies, and some have them, some don’t.”
“Our intent,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said, “is to bring them into compliance, but at some point you may have to say you’re not physically fit, because you may endanger someone else’s life. But the intent is not to be punitive, it’s to bring them into compliance.”
Commissioner Charlie Ericksen raised some objection to the way the document was presented. The contract was part of the commission’s consent agenda, where numerous items are voted on in bulk unless a commissioner or a member of the public asks for an item to be pulled for discussion. Ericksen did so regarding the firefighters’ contract.
“This would have been better served as a discussion point at a workshop,” Ericksens aid, “because I think it’s important that we recognize not only the job that our fire folks are performing for us, but ensuring that they’re adequately reimbursed for their regular time, and to get rid of this decompression problem. And again I just think I’d like to know more of the details on the contract—what it was, and what, if any, changes are in here.”
Coffey then walked commissioners through the changes.
The new contract goes in effect on Oct. 1, and is valid through Sept. 30, 2018.
Palm Coast’s firefighters–a separate, city-run department–are also unionized and starting negotiations for their new contract. “We’re basically in the same boat that they are,” Lt. Jason Laughren, who leads the city’s firefighters’ union, said today. “We have firefighters starting that make the same as older firefighters, that makes it an issue for everybody.”
But the city fire department is also experiencing various difficulties that are keeping candidates from applying, Laughren said. There are currently two openings at the department. Only eight or nine people have applied. “That’s real low. We used to have like, 100 applicants, but now we can’t get people to apply anymore,” Laughren said. “It’s starting to get around with all the issues going around with the county and the city fire services, so that people don’t even want to apply here, or apply, get some experience and leave.”
If they’re as good as the Palm Coast fire fighters they’re well worth it.
They are and they are!