News - November 2, 2011

Big changes in firefighter work practices, benefits

• Menlo Park fire chief may recommend two-tier retirement system.

by Barbara Wood

Major changes in work practices and benefits are coming for firefighters with the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. The district's government board voted 3-2 on Friday, Oct. 28, to give Chief Harold Schapelhouman the power to make the changes.

The changes were proposed by Chief Schapelhouman, who said in a report that he will also "consider options for developing a 'second tier' retirement program for employees hired on or after January 1, 2012," including considering both "lower level defined benefit plans and defined contribution plans (such as 401K)" and bring his recommendations back to the board. (A two-tier retirement program would offer lower retirement benefits to new employees.)

The changes, detailed below, were adopted without input from the district's firefighters union, but the fire board said it has invited union representatives to meet with board members to discuss the changes and will continue to be willing to discuss them in the future. The union insists it cannot negotiate until a grievance it filed against the district in 2009 has been resolved.

Firefighters' salaries are effectively frozen with no raises in the adopted documents. Step raises for years worked have been eliminated with a set hourly rate for each job title.

Among the changes approved by the board:

• Retiree medical benefits will be phased out for any firefighter not yet retired, with current employees offered either a one-time cash-out, or staggered payments of a maximum of $30,000 for firefighters and $36,000 for chief officers into a Public Employees Health Plan. New employees will not receive retirement health plan benefits. Current retirees will see no change.

• New firefighters hired by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District will have to live within a two-hour drive of the district. Current firefighters will be subject to the same limits if they move from their current residence. Current employees who live more than two hours away "should be encouraged to move closer ... as the opportunity arises," Chief Schapelhouman said in a report on the changes.

• Firefighters will be expected to start work on their 48-hour shifts at 7 a.m. instead of 8 a.m., and would have their regular workday end at 6 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. Holiday pay would be eliminated and be considered part of the regular hourly wage. Sundays, which had been considered a half work day, will become a full work day. The changes allow "increased flexibility to train, conduct safety inspections and better serve the business purposes of the organization and the community," Chief Schapelhouman said.

• The amount of annual leave that employees can accumulate will be capped with the district cashing out any existing hours over that amount.

• New hires will not receive any benefits while they are in the academy or working as trainees.

• Firefighters will have to stay at their station and shift assignments for a two-year period instead of being allowed to change more often.

• Vacation times will have to be arranged in advance and may not be changed once scheduled. These changes will allow the district to have more control over scheduling and avoid "over-hiring" to fill in for absent employees, Chief Schapelhouman said.

• New classifications for employees were adopted to simplify the way firefighters are paid. Instead of receiving supplemental pay for having paramedic or emergency medical technician credentials, firefighters will get a flat hourly wage for being, for example a "Firefighter-Paramedic." No firefighters will have their pay reduced because of the changes.

Board members Rex Ianson and Jack Nelson voted against the measure; Stephen Nachtsheim, Bart Spencer and Peter Carpenter voted for it.

The board also unanimously voted to spend close to $1.2 million to implement some of the changes. Some of the changes, including those for vacation time and work place and shift assignment, will go into place immediately. Others, including the residency requirement and work times will go into effect in January.

Chief Schapelhouman said the changes will allow the district "to gain additional efficiencies for the organization."

Mr. Carpenter said the board had to move ahead even though the union has not agreed to reopen negotiations. "Their unwillingness to do so does not relieve us of the responsibility to effectively manage this district," he said. "We can't change the position that the other side has taken. Nor can we withdraw from our responsibilities to do what we were elected to do."

But Mr. Ianson said he was concerned that the changes are "going to make it harder" on the firefighters. "I think there needs to be changes," he said, "but it needs to be reasonable changes."

District firefighters have not had a raise since July 2007 because the district and the Menlo Park Firefighters Association Local 2400 have been unable to agree on a new contract. Their last contract expired in June 2008. In April the district imposed a contract on the union that offers no pay raise, but does include $750 a month in additional benefits.

Union representatives continue to insist that they cannot negotiate with the district until a grievance alleging unfair labor practices filed by the firefighters' union in 2009 with the state's Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) is resolved. The board's hearing has been completed, but no decision has yet been announced.

In August the union filed a new grievance, and firefighter's association vice president John Wurdinger says that another will probably be filed because of the latest action by the district board. "If we start negotiating our PERB charges go away," Mr. Wurdinger said. "We are very certain the fire district is in the wrong, which is why we've stood fast for the past 2-1/2 years."

The latest grievance claims the district should not be imposing changes on the firefighters until the original grievance is resolved. Until then, the union's claim says, the district should continue to operate under the terms of the contract that expired in 2008.

Visit and check under "Board Agendas and Minutes" to see the full text of the board's resolution.


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