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Fire union pact brings raises

YOUNGSTOWN — The city’s firefighters union voted in support of a three-year contract that calls for its members to get larger annual raises than they’ve seen in at least 15 years.

“We’re happy with the contract,” Charlie Smith, the union’s president, said.

The union voted Tuesday and Wednesday with a majority supporting the proposed contract, said Smith, who didn’t provide the vote totals.

Smith confirmed firefighters will get a 1 percent pay raise this year, retroactive to Jan. 1, and then a 2 percent raise in 2022 and 2.5 percent in 2023.

None of the city unions have received annual raises of more than 1.5 percent since at least the early 2000s, including seven years with no salary increase.

The fire union received a 2.5 percent salary increase in 2015. But that was actually a combination of a retroactive 1 percent raise for 2014 and a 1.5 percent increase for 2015 as firefighters had worked without a contract for close to a year before that deal was approved.

“Following a year and a half of unproductive negotiations, (the firefighters union) was able to reach a tentative agreement with the city, narrowly avoiding arbitration,” Smith said. “This contract is a good first step towards the hard-working safety forces of this city earning a fair and honest wage.”

He added: “We’re optimistic that future negotiations can be more cooperative and yield results sooner.”

City Law Director Jeff Limbian said he expects city council to vote on the fire union contract at its next meeting, Oct. 6, and expects members to “vote in the affirmative” on the deal.

The city had struggled financially, but received federal COVID-19 funds to more than offset those losses.

SETS PRECEDENT

The fire union pay raises for 2022 and 2023 set a new standard for how the city will bargain with its other labor unions.

Traditionally, the city provides the same pay raises for every union. The fire union received a 1 percent increase for this year, which was the amount given to other unions.

The city is negotiating with its police patrol union on a three-year deal as the old one expired Nov. 30.

That contract is expected to include the same pay raises for firefighters: 2 percent in 2022 and 2.5 percent in 2023. The patrol officers contract would go into 2024 with an expected raise for that year, too.

The city also is planning to increase the starting salary for patrol officers, currently $16.49 per hour, to a figure close to $20 per hour in the first year.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s uncertainty last December, two unions — one representing water department workers and the other representing city hall and health district employees — agreed to delay pay increases.

The contract with the water employees called for no pay increase in 2020 or 2021 with a 3.5 percent increase in January 2022. That is equivalent to the 1.5 percent raises other unions received in 2020, 1 percent that other unions received in 2021 and 1 percent in 2022.

The other union received no pay raise this year and will get a 2 percent raise in 2022 — 1 percent for that year and 1 percent for this year. That contract also includes a 1 percent raise for 2023.

While contracts with those unions won’t be reopened, city officials say they likely will get higher raises in their next deals to make up the difference in the amounts they will receive compared to the firefighters.

FIRE ISSUES

City council and the firefighters union in May rejected a proposed three-year contract from a fact finder with 1 percent annual raises as well as 1.25 percent “pandemic lump sum” bonuses in the first two years.

The firefighters union had requested 3 percent raises annually while the city offered 1 percent yearly raises, which is what other city unions had been given.

The two sides have had numerous disputes during Mayor Jamael Tito Brown’s administration.

Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge Maureen Sweeney sided in February with the State Employment Relations Board that the city unfairly retaliated against the firefighters union when it sought to eliminate three battalion chief positions after agreeing to provide upgrades to the department’s radio system.

The city filed an appeal to the decision with the 7th District Court of Appeals.

The union contacted a state agency that determined in July 2020 the city had failed to protect firefighters from the COVID-19 pandemic. Those four health and safety hazard violations were resolved.

The administration closed fire stations on a rotating basis in October 2018 and again in June 2019, with the latter ongoing, because of overtime costs, which the union said poses a danger. City officials say the overtime issue is caused by too many firefighters calling in sick and then having to be replaced by other firefighters, paid time and a half.

The union issued a no-confidence vote against fire Chief Barry Finley in December 2019, and the city closed a North Side fire station that same month over the objections of the union.

The city has also accused the union of participating in an unauthorized strike and filed an unfair labor practice over that issue while the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint over Finley bringing in outside chiefs instead of battalion chiefs to cover for him when he isn’t in the city.

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