Ruling: Everett must negotiate firefighter staffing levels

Now the hard part: The city and the union must agree on minimum on-duty personnel at fire stations.

EVERETT — The city of Everett can’t set minimum staffing levels for the fire department without negotiating the numbers with the union, according to a new labor ruling.

The state Public Employment Relations Commission issued a decision Oct. 3.

“We’re very happy that they ruled that the union clearly established that staffing has a direct impact on workload and safety,” said Paul Gagnon, president of the firefighters union, Local 46.

The union had appealed an earlier decision by a hearing examiner, who sided with the city. The firefighters hope the new ruling marks a peaceful resolution to a lengthy dispute, Gagnon said.

He hasn’t heard yet whether the city will appeal. As of this week, city staff are reviewing the decision, said Meghan Pembroke, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office.

“A determination will be made about how to proceed,” she said.

Fire department staffing can be an intensely political subject, especially during election cycles. The union represents about 165 firefighters and paramedics. For years, they have argued that more of them are needed to serve Everett. City Hall, meanwhile, asserts that it has the management right to set staffing levels. The issue has real consequences for the budget: Spending on the fire department accounts for about one in six general fund dollars.

Since the 1970s, the union’s contract has set minimum around-the-clock staffing at 25. Firefighters aren’t allowed to strike in Washington, so contract questions get settled by other means, such as arbitration or the Public Employment Relations Commission, which is a state labor-management board.

During the most recent recession, around-the-clock staffing at the Everett Fire Department was reduced by about 15 percent, according to the ruling.

The union says the actual number on any shift tends to run higher than stated in the contract, between 28 and 32. It is seeking a permanent increase to 35. That’s what was in practice before the recession, Gagnon said

“That’s our reasonable request,” he said. “We still believe that is not even going to be enough.”

The city told the state it can’t afford that. The 2017 base pay for an Everett firefighter starts at $57,120. For a firefighter-paramedic, it starts at $93,744. Everett’s spending is outpacing revenue, and there are limits to the taxes it can levy.

The dispute escalated in summer 2015. The city filed a complaint with the state accusing the union of unfair labor practice. The city alleged that firefighters had refused to negotiate parts of the contract to the point of impasse. This March, a hearing examiner ruled in the city’s favor. The examiner said the city’s interest in managing its resources outweighed firefighters’ concerns about working hours and conditions.

In its appeal, filed about four months ago, the union cited the increased demand on emergency medical services. Calls to 911 seeking a response from the fire department have more than quadrupled since the 1970s, according to the ruling.

The state labor board found the increased workload heightened the risks to firefighters’ physical and mental health. It also determined that too much work negates the ability of staff to complete building inspections and participate in training.

The board did not consider the city’s argument about costs. That point was raised too late in the process, the ruling says.

The union’s contracts usually last three years. Minimum staffing was the only unresolved matter within the contract for 2015-2017. It was removed from the talks so they could proceed. Negotiations are ongoing for the 2018-2020 contract.

It’s too soon to tell whether the minimum staffing issue will be resolved before the next contract starts.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rikkiking.

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