City and firefighters reach an accord

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City and firefighters reach an accord
City Council approved a collective bargaining agreement with the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 2141, the local firefighters’ union.
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By Olivia Anderson | oanderson@alextimes.com

The Alexandria City Council approved a resolution last week to commit funding toward a collective bargaining agreement between the City of Alexandria and the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 2141, the local firefighters’ union.

The agreement provides funding for salary increases, reduced work hours, investments in safety initiatives and a benefits package.

City Manager Jim Parajon and local union leader Josh Turner praised the agreement, while also acknowledging that both sides made compromises and that discussions are not over yet. But city resident Bill Rossello, who has worked with local governments on fiscal matters and was a long-time member of Alexandria’s budget committee, said the agreement is too expensive with hidden unintended fiscal consequences.

Parajon said the agreement marks a profound step toward strengthening the relationship between the city and fire department and therefore bolstering the department as a whole.

“I think it shows a true commitment on the part of our elected body and management team to be fully supportive of the fire department. We want to make sure that we have the best fire department we can,” Parajon said.

The process was extensive and involved numerous conversations between the city’s and fire department’s bargaining units. Beginning several months ago, the two parties met weekly or biweekly to discuss the various issues the fire bargaining unit desired to alter.

“It was very lengthy. [There were] a lot of spirited, in-depth discussions. A lot of analysis went into a lot of the elements, particularly as it relates to compensation and benefits and things like that. There was a lot of work that was done behind the scenes,” Parajon said.

According to Parajon, the sides differed on topics such as targeted wage discussions for fire marshals and medics, but both wanted to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.

“What I found was that we always had the common goal of trying to find a great agreement that was very supportive of our fire department as well as something that from a community standpoint we could support,” Parajon said.

Turner, IAFF Local 2141 president and city resident, emphasized that the fire department’s priorities lay in negotiating not only wages and benefits, but also in working conditions and service delivery.

While the city and department reached a baseline agreement, Turner noted that conversations are far from over. With the assistance of an independent arbiter, both parties created a joint labor management partnership consisting of management and union representatives to provide a framework for continued discussions on how to better the organization.

The agreement will allocate $2.5 million next year for salaries and other related costs, and an additional $13.9 million over the next three years. It also allows for more safety initiatives and a commitment to hire more firefighters and medics, totaling up to $2.4 million next year and $13.5 over the next three years.

According to Parajon, the funds will be supported by grants and the city’s general fund.

The agreement is set to begin on July 1 and run through June 30, 2026. It includes 52 additional positions and a reduction in firefighter work schedules from 56 to 50 hours per week. The Alexandria Fire Department currently holds one of the highest numbers of working hours in the region, and finding an amenable agreement was a significant driver in negotiation conversations for both sides.

“I think in the agreement, that commits us to finding a way over the three-year agreement to achieve that, which will be challenging, but we’re committed to do that,” Parajon said.

The ordinance states that the 50-hour work week will start in year three, which Turner said will help the city better compete with other departments in the region and support the mental and physical well-being of AFD employees.

“There are some provisions for recruitment, where the city has to have so many firefighters that they hire every year and how many recruit schools they need to have, but also within that grouping is identifying frankly how that affects firefighter health [and] paramedic health,” Turner said.

Some residents have criticized the large operational budget increase that will come with this collective bargaining agreement, especially the combination of higher pay for shorter hours worked. A fire department must be staffed 24/7, or 168 hours per week, which evens out to three battalions – AFD’s current amount – of 56 hours worked by each firefighter.

But because the new 50-hour week would equate to an uneven 3.36 battalions, AFD would likely have to increase that number to four, potentially leading instead to a 42-hour work week and the question of how to fund those extra positions.

Rossello said his primary concern is the magnitude of the increase in the overall AFD budget.

“Every staff member got a huge raise, a promotion to a higher pay classification and an 11% decrease in work hours, not to mention a reduction in required work tasks. While the magnitude of the wage increase may well have been needed, the reduction in hours will require an 12% increase in budgeted positions,” Rossello said.

Rossello also suggested that this agreement is likely an interim step on the way to the 42-hour work week, which could increase personnel costs by 33%, and that the additional hours might be built into overtime, adding to another 10% hike in fire personnel costs.

“Fire departments are generally popular among functions of municipal government, but would residents be okay with paying 43% more for a service they may use once or twice in 40 years living here?” Rossello asked.

Rossello said the cumulative effect of the current agreement along with the future cost of moving to the 42-hour week is too much of a fiscal burden for city residents.

“That would be a huge mistake for any city/county (Arlington is doing it, but Fairfax County is not). … Should residents pay a total of 75-80% more in four to five years than they pay today? Is that the [city’s] approach to ‘bargaining’ on behalf of residents?” he questioned.

Parajon noted that the city has not yet determined if it will increase its number of battalions but stood firm in the decision to move to 50 hours in order to align with regional partners and to provide a healthy and balanced work environment for employees.

“We’re still working through that. I think what we’re committed to is evaluating how we can get to a 50-hour work week with making sure we’re looking at what our fire department needs to be and look like to move forward. So it’s probably a combination of how we operate as well as some staffing additions,” Parajon said. “… We’re committed to try to make that adjustment downward. It just is the right thing to do.”

This agreement marks the first collective bargaining agreement between a Virginia locality and a union representing firefighters since 1970, and the second in 40 years since the city reached its first deal in November 2022 with the police union.

Collective bargaining – which allows a city’s public sector employees to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions with their employers – existed in the city until 1977, when the Virginia Supreme Court passed a ruling that stopped local governments from collective bargaining with their employees. In April 2020, the General Assembly passed a new law permitting municipalities across the state to establish collective bargaining procedures of their own, which went into effect in May 2021.

On April 17, 2021, the City of Alexandria became the first locality in Virginia to authorize collective bargaining under the new state law, and last year it approved a good faith agreement with the Alexandria chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association. It will include pay increases for officers, sergeants and lieutenants, with officers’ starting pay increasing 11% from $54,698 to $61,503 starting July 1 and increasing annually through June 30, 2026.

The firefighters’ wage hike is intended to ensure that the city will be competitive in both recruitment and retention of employees. The agreement includes 5% market-rate, base salary increases for firefighter I, II, II and IV positions, and a 10% market-rate, base salary increase for the fire lieutenant, EMS lieutenant, fire captain and EMS captain positions.

According to Turner, retention issues have existed throughout his entire 13 years with the department, with five fire chiefs having passed through the department during his tenure. Increasing wages, he said, is a strategic move that will benefit the city and employees.

Parajon echoed this sentiment, noting that increasing wages serves as a long-term investment that aims to capture employees for longer.

“This is a very competitive regional market for this discipline. We want to make sure that we’re preserving and protecting and retaining our employees, and this really does help,” Parajon said.

According to Turner, IAFF Local 2141 ratified the agreement with 96.2% voting in favor, a very high standard for approval.

“People are excited about this because for a long time … sometimes things that were priorities or work that was done by the membership would go unnoticed. Now, it’s a conversation that has to happen,” Turner said. “… Frankly, it mirrors the values of our community.”

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