As Ocoee firefighters sound the alarm on department turnover, ongoing contract negotiations with the city aim to address issues such as retention and wages.
Ocoee’s fire department currently has just five vacancies, but it’s the number of firefighters who have left since January — 14 — that is most concerning to members of the local fire union.
Eight months into 2021, that surpasses the number of Ocoee Fire Department employees who left in 2020 — 13.
The Ocoee Professional Firefighters Local 3623 union has raised concerns regarding the turnover rate and low morale at the department. According to union president Chris Atalski, it’s becoming a public safety issue.
Atalski said the fire department has 36 total firefighter-class positions. Ninety-one percent of those have fewer than five years of service. Nineteen have fewer than three years of service, and 14 have fewer than one.
“When you come to really think about it, the firemen are the ones that do the majority of the work,” he said. “They’re expected to know when and how to do it. They could arrive in the city of Ocoee, or they could be dispatched mutual aid into the county or even Winter Garden and (be) expected to do duties that we all expect them to know. Unfortunately, you don’t start Day 1 in the fire department and know everything. You really need to get some time and experience and education, and that we lack right now in the firefighter position with the turnover rate.”
Although some of the 33 fire department employees who have left since the beginning of 2020 got out of the fire service completely, Atalski said most have moved on to other departments seeking higher pay and more opportunities for advancement.
The Orlando Fire Department has one of the highest starting salaries in the region, which ranges from $51,370 and $53,654 annually based on experience. Orange County Fire Rescue Department firefighter salaries start at $42,340. Currently, Ocoee firefighters start at about $40,000.
“What we want to do is focus on the core turnover issues. The problem is if you truly want to address recruitment and retention, you can’t continue to start at $40,000.” — Jeffrey Mandel, city of Ocoee’s labor attorney
Both Orlando and Orange County are much larger departments, but one thing both the union and the city agree on is that Ocoee’s starting wages aren’t competitive enough.
“We all think that we deserve to get paid like Orlando salaries but we understand that the budgets are different,” Atalski said. “We can definitely understand and reason that we’re not going to get Winter Park pay or Orlando pay, because the budget’s just not there. … Now it’s just time for us to work together, because we accept the fact that we’re losing so many people and we’re trying to … get our pay up and get our benefits up where we can actually retain the employees.”
Union contracts run on the city’s fiscal year calendar — Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 — and span three years. By the time the last contract was signed, it already had expired due to an extensive negotiation period. Currently, the city and union are working on negotiating the 2020-23 contract — of which the first year is already almost complete.
On the last contract, the union and city agreed to raise the starting pay from $36,900 to $40,000.
Jeffrey Mandel, the city’s labor attorney and chief negotiator, said the city recognizes the $40,000 starting salary is still inadequate. The current market average in Orange and Seminole counties is about $42,000 for a starting salary, he said, and other jurisdictions likely are going to be increasing their starting salary for the upcoming fiscal year.
“What we want to do is focus on the core turnover issues,” he said. “The problem is if you truly want to address recruitment and retention, you can’t continue to start at $40,000.”
To keep up, Mandel said the city came up with a plan to increase Ocoee’s starting salary to $41,800 this year, $43,692 next year, and $44,566 in 2023 to put it in a more competitive posture for new-hire firefighter/EMTs. Additionally, the annual paramedic incentive would be increased to $9,000 by FY 2022-23.
But the union is concerned about that creating more compression.
“They’re wanting to raise the minimum more than they’re raising the top or the middle for the people who are currently employed,” Atalski said. “Right now, we have employees that have been here for years making like 10 cents more than a new hire. ... That’s not good for the morale.”
Mandel said starting wages need to be increased if the department is going to attract new hires. The city’s current proposed contract calls for wage increases, paramedic school tuition coverage and more.
“We ended up putting together a plan that over the three years would give the employees 11.5% increases,” he said. “We basically came up with a plan whereby we gave everybody a guaranteed 3% first year, 4.5% second year and 4% in the third year — so 11.5% — plus compression increases of up to 4.5% in the first and second year.
“The last thing we did is in respect to the paramedic school (tuition reimbursement),” Mandel said. “We proposed to implement a program whereby we would guarantee paying for at least four firefighters to go through paramedic school each fiscal year.”
But it’s about more than just the wages, Atalski said. Among the other articles in the contract the union has opened for negotiation is pension. The city’s current proposal is to cap the percentage of the pension multiplier at 3.25% for those hired after 2015 and 3.5% for those hired prior, as well as capping the percentage of pension entitlement to 81.25% and member contribution 8%.
“We’re trying to raise the multiplier up to 3.6% and trying to cap it at 90% instead of the 81.25%,” Atalski said. “We’re working to try to get an actuary to see what that will cost, so it may take some time to get all those figures.”
Of course, budgetary constraints are always a factor to keep in mind, Mandel said.
“When you’re on our side of the table and you’re looking at what you’re going to pay for the fire department employees, you have to keep in mind, ‘What do I need to do for the police officers, and what do I need to do for blue collar employees?’” Mandel said. “And … there’s a constitutional mandate that we have to get up to $15 an hour (minimum wage) by a certain date, and how are we going to go ahead and implement that? It has an upward ripple effect.”
The union and the city last met for a bargaining session on July 26 and have another scheduled for Friday, Aug. 13.
“We had a good bargaining session … where we were able to agree to quite a few articles, so we’re hoping we can sit down and agree to some more,” Atalski said. “Having a contract signed will definitely boost the morale.”