Plainfield, union negotiations ‘distressed’
by BETH ALTENA
Negotiations between Plainfield Township and the fire union are stalled at 25 proposals for the contract for the township’s 11 full-time firefighters. Fifteen of the proposals are from the union, and ten are from Plainfield Township.
On Tuesday, August 5, Steven Girard, township attorney in the negotiations, outlined the financial ramifications should the union prevail in all of its 15 disputed requests. The union proposes a three percent wage increase for each of the three years. This request would cost Plainfield Township’s tax payers $28,000 per year.
The second disputed request is a longevity bonus to be paid after five and 10 years with the department. There currently is no longevity benefit. The union is asking for an additional holiday for the firefighters, which would be an additional $3,000 per year and$9,000 over the course of the three-year contract.
Another request is to change the titles currently held by equipment operators, firefighters and lieutenants. The proposal is to change the title of equipment operators to lieutenants to captains, and lieutenants to be captains or battalion chiefs. According to Girard, this might not cost the township any additional money during this contract, but would certainly be a basis for pay increases during arbitration in future contracts. In arbitration, pay by title would be compared to pay to similar titles in comparable municipalities. The city of Jackson, for example, has been used as a “comparable” municipality.
Girard said a substantial request was to increase benefits of disability to 75 percent of pay during long-term disability and 100 percent of pay during short-term disability. He said those figures were so high he could not find an insurance company that would give a bid.
Another significant request was for an additional day off each month for each full-time firefighter. Currently with 24 shifts firefighters have a schedule of days on and days off that equal working nine 24-hour days per month. One additional day off per month per firefighter would cost the township taxpayers nearly half a million dollars, Girard said. It would mean each of the 11 full-time fire department union employees would only work eight days a month.
In addition, the union is demanding a worker’s comp provision that if an employee is injured on the job they would receive 100 percent of their pay until reaching the age of 65.
The estimated costs during three years of the contract, should all proposals be approved, would be an additional $635,000, according to figures provided by Township Manager Robert Homan.
“That’s the long and the short of it,” Girard said at the end of his presentation. “It would be a significant, significant liability to saddle the township with any of these.”
Homan said the union contract expired in March and was extended during negotiations. The township’s 10 proposals are cost-cutting in nature and include using more paid on-call firefighters rather than full-time firefighters. The paid on-call firefighters make $14.75 hourly versus the $24 to $29 per hour for the full-time positions. The township also proposes fire department personnel pay ten percent of their health insurance premiums the first year of the contract, rising to 15 percent in the second year, and 20 percent in the third year.
Homan said the township in the past has twice gone into arbitration with the union, an expensive proposition involving attorneys, that has already cost the township nearly $200,000 in legal fees in recent years.
Homan said the “noose around our necks is Public Act 312.” PA 312 requires employees and unions who cannot come to a contract agreement to enter arbitration and accept the arbitrator’s recommendation on each count.
“Typically they will split the baby,” he explained. “It makes a sham of negotiations if you have that over your head. There is no incentive to settle. If you go into arbitration with a big long list and know you will get something, that’s not a bad deal on their part.”
He said the average cost to the township per year per full-time person in the fire department, with food allowances, clothing allowances, and other items such as benefits and overtime, is about $98,000 per year.
The 31,000 residents of Plainfield Township are served with two full-time fire department employees on staff 24 hours a day at each of the two stations with one full time lieutenant as a roving supervisor. Fire department personnel are the first responders to all medical calls. The only exception is the Grand Rapids Fire Department, who backs up the ambulance service that is relied upon for first response under contract with that Township.