Last week, the Groton Board of Selectmen temporarily reversed Town Manager Mark Haddad’s two-month long policy of intentionally understaffing fire and emergency medical services during the busiest weekday shifts, a policy that Fire Chief Joe Bosselait and Selectman Jack Petropolous said put town residents at risk.
In bringing the staff reduction to the Board for action, Petropolous highlighted the public safety issue. He said this week:
“There is nothing theoretical about the charge that public safety was jeopardized. It is a documented fact, and doing so broke our promise to taxpayers. Town Meeting voted to fund the staffing of the fire department with four full time staff in order to provide the capacity to provide an immediate response to two concurrent medical emergencies, and to allow the required two firefighters to be outside of a burning building to provide support while two firefighters go in. When we have only three firefighters on duty we are not able to immediately respond to two concurrent medical emergencies and we are not able to provide the required coverage to enter a burning building. We need to wait for call firefighters to respond from wherever they are at the time of the call.
I provided four examples of such delays that occurred within a five day period. This is only theoretical until one of those calls is for an emergency in which response time is a matter of life or death. If it is your child on the floor having an allergic reaction while our only ambulance is on the other side of town, the extra time that it may take to respond will turn very real.”
Haddad presented his case in his reply to Petropolous at the meeting, saying that fiscal management was more important than response time, “I’m looking at this purely as a budgetary problem to provide services. I made a decision that I thought was in the best interests of the town and I stand by that decision.” He explained that he talked to the fire chief about curtailing overtime for the first time on September 30, noting that there was a projected shortfall in the fiscal 2014 budget of about $35,000.
But there is an underlying subplot of labor relations gone wrong too, which may or may not have triggered the staffing reduction.
Documents obtained by The Groton Line under a Massachusetts Public Information Request in the wake of last week’s meeting may corroborate a charge made by members of the Professional Firefighters of Groton International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4879: that the understaffing policy was implemented by Haddad in retaliation for a grievance filed by the union over unpaid back wages and overtime.
The union represents all five of Groton’s full time fire fighters. The fire fighters were supposed to be paid back wages and overtime for shifts worked earlier in the fiscal year. This required an increase in this year’s town budget, an item that was approved as Article 2 at the 2013 Fall Town Meeting on October 21. The town subsequently paid fire fighters what its staff calculated was the correct amount, but that amount is less than what the union claims its contract grants them.
What did Article 2 — Fire Wages -- include?
From the section of the 2013 Fall Town Meeting warrant:
REPORT OF THE TOWN MANAGER TO THE 2013 FALL TOWN MEETING
Fire Wages — $58,472
In January 2012, the Town was notified by the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) that they would be representing the Professional Firefighters of Groton. For the past year and a half, the Town has been negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the IAFF, Local 4879. The reason that this has been such a lengthy process is due to the difficulty of negotiating the initial contract and covering all the issues that may arise over the course of a three year agreement. The Town performed salary and benefit surveys of similar departments and tried to be as fair and equitable as possible to the Firefighters, while protecting the Town’s interests. The Town and the Union have reached a tentative agreement on a three-year contract that provides a seven percent (7%) wage adjustment (3% in FY 2013, 2% in FY 2014 and 2% in FY 2015) and runs from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2015. This is consistent with all other Union Agreements. The Wage increase is retroactive to July 1, 2012. The requested appropriation of $58,472 will cover the retroactive pay (including overtime), as well as provide enough funding in FY 2014.
Board of Selectmen: Recommended Unanimously Finance Committee: Recommended Unanimously
And the Article itself:
ARTICLE 2- PROTECTION OF PERSONS AND PROPERTY Mover: Josh Degen
MOTION 2: PROTECTION OF PERSONS & PROPERTY: By increasing the Protection of Persons and Property Appropriation from $2,974,896 to $3,118,168 so as to: increase Line Item 1300 — “Police Department Salaries” by $4,800 from $270,340 to $275,140; increase Line Item 1301 — “Police Department Wages” by $80,000 from $1,318,025 to $1,398,025; and increase Line Item 1311 — “Fire Department Wages” by $58,472 from $566,843 to $625,315; And to raise and appropriate the sum of $143,272 to fund said increases.
Moved and Seconded Quantum: Majority
Discussion:? Impact on tax rate?? Response (Mr. Haddad):
- Spring 2013 Approved Budget would set the tax rate at $17.23, with an average tax bill of $6892. This is a $150 increase over FY2013.
- If Fall 2013 budget changes approved, the tax rate for FY2014 would be set at $17.36, with an average tax bill of $6944. This would be a $204 increase over FY2013.
Vote on Article 2 — Protection of Persons and Property Main Motion: Passed by Majority
According to a grievance filed by the union with Bosselait on November 11, Veteran’s Day, the back wages and overtime dating back to July 2012 were only partially paid. The difference in the amount paid is the result of different interpretations of the union contract by the union and the town, officials said.
Bosselait informed Haddad that he had received the grievance, and replied to the union’s grievance with a letter stating that he did not have the authority to act upon it. At a meeting on November 12, ostensibly to discuss the grievance, Bosselait received orders from Haddad not to fill weekday shift vacancies if the person filling the shift would receive overtime pay.
The inability to fill shifts meant that fire and EMS staffing fell below the minimum staffing of four fire fighters 69 percent of the time between November 13 2013 and January 2014, when the BoS temporarily reversed Haddad’s directive. Normal fire and EMS staffing during the busiest 8 a.m. — 4 p.m. time period requires four fire fighters on duty, because two people are required on each piece of equipment. If fewer than four people are on duty, only one apparatus, either a fire truck or an ambulance, can respond to an emergency call to which both would normally respond. It also means that two simultaneous calls cannot be handled. The four person complement is normally made up of three full time firefighters — union members — and one call firefighter paid at a per diem rate.
In either situation, call fire fighters — volunteers — always respond to the alarms to assist. But the time it takes a call firefighter or EMT to respond either to the station to fully staff a truck or ambulance or to drive directly to the emergency increases response time.
The next day, November 13, after Bosselait implemented Haddad’s order limiting overtime, Professional Firefighters of Groton President Tyler Shute sent a letter to Bosselait that reads:
“We would like to request a meeting with the Town Manager and yourself to try to work things out with respect to the collective bargaining issues. We have been advised that his directive with respect to cutting our staffing is illegal. We would like to meet with him and work this out so that we do not need to take legal action. We are willing to work to come up with a compromise that would be agreeable to all parties.
The Union has made multiple attempts to work this out and unequivocally it is our desire to work it out without taking
Haddad refused to set up a meeting because the grievance had been filed.
Also on November 13, the union’s lawyer, Patrick Bryant, weighed in with a letter to Haddad that included these lines:
“The Town’s inaction here violates its obligations under Chapter lSOE, Sections 6, 7 and 10. I respect that the Town apparently has denied any agreement for full retroactive compensation. Reasonable people can disagree in professional terms. However, you apparently did not choose this course of action.
You apparently promised to stop filing shift vacancies in response to the Union’s lawful and protected efforts to enforce the contract and state bargaining law. Such a statement is unquestionably in violation of the law.”
Haddad replied to Bryant the next day, calling his allegations “baseless” and drawing attention to the continuing practice of using overtime pay to make up fully staffed shifts. He made the point that he had first ordered the police and fire departments to curtail overtime in September, and again in October, before issuing the directive in November.
By the next week, the grievance became moot because the union did not pursue it. Under terms of its contract, once Bosselait informed it that he did nor have the authority to resolve the problems, the union would have had to send the grievance directly to Haddad. It chose not to do so, according to Shute, in order to try to work things out with the town.
Vice chair of the Board of Selectmen Josh Degen didn’t like the timing of Haddad’s order. He said, “On the surface, one could construe that Mark’s actions appeared to be retaliatory. But after speaking to the town manager, who issued directives to the police department and fire department in September and reiterated them in October before issuing the directive … with regards to whether it was retaliatory or not, only the town manager can answer that.”
“I would expect someone in Mark’s position as Town Manager, with a couple of decades of experience, to have enough class to never to do something retaliatory to do any employee of the town in which he works,” Degen said.
He also made the point that “The interpretation of the union for the terms of the contract, for the retroactive pay, and the town counsel’s interpretation of that amount are two different numbers. The Town Manager, accountant, and counsel arrived at the number we believe was correct.”
Late last week, union members had not made a decision whether to pursue the grievance again, or to allege to the National Labor Relations Board that Haddad violated Federal labor laws by taking retaliatory action on their November grievance.
Haddad did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The Board of Selectmen will revisit staffing levels at its next meeting, on Monday, January 27. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the Lost Lake Fire Station instead of the usual location in Town Hall. A discussion with all town fire fighters on the pending search for a new fire chief is also on the agenda.