Contract dispute between Wilmington firefighters union and the city goes into arbitration

 City of Wilmington (Brian Drouin/WHYY)

City of Wilmington (Brian Drouin/WHYY)

After three years of contract negotiations without an agreement, the dispute between the union representing firefighters in Wilmington and the city has moved into binding arbitration.

The city said its proposed contract addresses short staffing, while the union argues it does nothing to address a longstanding practice it believes puts lives in danger.

Much of the dispute has focused on what’s called “a rolling bypass.” The practice takes one fire vehicle out of service on a rotating basis to address short staffing and reduce overtime costs. Firefighters have called the 20-year practice dangerous, and a lawsuit blamed it for the deaths of three firefighters in 2016.

Mayor Mike Purzycki disputes those claims because a federal report did not cite the practice as a cause of the fatalities.

The mayor said the city’s proposal to increase firefighters’ 91-day-per-year shift to 104 days will eliminate the need for a rolling bypass. Firefighters would take two days off after working a 24-hour shift, instead of their current three days off. Purzycki said the union has not agreed to the shift change.

Joe Leonetti Jr. of the Wilmington firefighters union said the association felt the shift change was demanding.

But he said it would agree to the new shift if the elimination of the rolling bypass was put in writing and the city agreed to not implement layoffs — something he said the city has not yet agreed to.

Without the elimination of the practice in the contract, firefighters worry that it will continue, he said.

“If it’s your neighborhood or my neighborhood that’s affected, we’re waiting longer for a firetruck to get there. Every second counts when your loved one is having a heart attack or choking on the floor,” Leonetti said.

“Every second and minute counts when we’re trying to get there through traffic. So when you shut down an engine company, it not only puts our lives in danger, it puts the city of Wilmington’s residents in danger as well.”

Leonetti also blames rolling bypass on the elimination of 16 firefighting positions in the mayor’s fiscal 2018 budget — positions the mayor argues the city cannot afford.

The city is offering salary raises over four years, but the union argues the raises only work out to a 5% increase with the shift change.

“Our 91 days a year are 24-hour days. We work a 42-hour workweek on average and only get paid 40 hours a week. So every week every firefighter gives back two hours for free to the City of Wilmington at a cost saving of half a million dollars, and we’re the only city employees that don’t receive time-and-a-half overtime after 40 hours,” Leonetti said.

The arbitrator could select the best offer or continue discussion between the two parties. Mayor Purzycki said the process cannot be stalled any longer.

“We’ve got a lot of great firefighters, we never have to worry about whether they will do their job or not. This is just one of those things that happens along the way, and hopefully everyone acts in good faith, we put name-calling behind us, and worry about operating our city as best we can,” he said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal