City of Ocoee, firefighters union face challenging negotiations

Turnover has some worried, as the firefighter’s union continues to work with the city.

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  • | 10:52 a.m. February 10, 2021
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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Ongoing contract negotiations and turnover at the Ocoee Fire Department have some worried that the city will be unable to keep quality firefighters.

Residents Chris Adkins and Brad Lomneck broached the subject during the Feb. 2 Ocoee City Commission meeting.

“We have to have a grave concern if we’re starting to have a lot of turnover — especially in our first responders,” Adkins said during the meeting. “I know there has been some stuff online and so on  and so forth  in regards to salaries and this and that, but I’m not here about that. What I’m here about is my concern that we cannot retain quality firefighters in the city of Ocoee.

“When you hire an employee and they don’t stay for very long, the cost to the city taxpayer, the cost to the department is substantial,” he said. “We have got to start to heal this.”

The “stuff online” Adkins was referring to is information published on Facebook by an account called Ocoee Firefighters. It is run by Allen Savoie — president of the Ocoee Professional Firefighters Local 3623 union. Savoie is a former Ocoee firefighter who said he had been terminated on the same day he became union president, claiming that he had been terminated without cause.

In those posts, Savoie has pointed to the number of firefighters who have left the department recently as a failure by the city to retain first responders, he said.

“It’s really a safety concern,” Savoie said. “You can see our recent post, and it’s like 37%. (The department has) lost almost 20 guys in the last two years. … That should get anybody’s attention. Now, the turnover rate has been because of the pay and the benefits and they’re just not where they should be — the turnover rate says that alone regardless of who is looking at the numbers.”

During last week’s commission meeting, Mayor Rusty Johnson and City Manager Robert Frank hit on a few different points, including the differences between Ocoee and its larger cohorts. Frank also noted the turnover rate was normal in the fire department and said that often those who apply for Ocoee apply to others — Orange County and Orlando — as well.

“We want to keep all salaries fair, and we want to keep them competitive; no matter what we do, they’re going to leave here when they get a job offer from Orange County or Orlando,” Frank said during the meeting. “It’s happened for the entire 17 years that I’ve been here, and it’s just going to happen.”

Adkins asked commissioners if they believed the city was experiencing a “mass exodus.” 

Johnson disagreed.

“First of all, I don’t think we’re having a mass exodus,” Johnson said during the meeting. “You can say what you want; a lot of people leave here to go to other jobs all the time — they go into a job that pays more money. I had one of the firefighters tell me one time, ‘When you go to Orange County, you’re going to find you have a whole different wagon to do there — you’re going to be out running all day and all not.’ We don’t have the runs they have.”

The biggest issue, from what has been discussed, largely revolves around pay and benefits. Currently, the base salary for a firefighter in Ocoee is around $40,000, compared to $48,000 in the city of Orlando, and around $51,000 in Orange County. That salary includes a 9% raise they received last month, Frank said. However, Savoie said it was actually a 3% raise for each of the last three years.

“First of all, I don’t think we’re having a mass exodus. You can say what you want; a lot of people leave here to go to other jobs all the time — they go into a job that pays more money.”

— Rusty Johnson, Ocoee Mayor

Because firefighters are unionized, the union and the city have to agree to a three-year contract to establish all of the specifics. Frank said city and union currently are in negotiations.

The previous contract expired in October, and the firefighters are operating under that expired contract. So far, the negotiation for the contract through 2023 have been difficult, Savoie said.

“We had a sit-down meeting with them on Thursday, and the city had no proposal for us,” Savoie said. “They asked us … ‘What is it that you want?’ Of course they know what the problem is, we tell them. They said, ‘OK, we’ll get back to you,’ and that’s it.”

Savoie said in addition to salaries, another concern is the required paramedic training and license, which requires firefighters to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket. During the meeting, Adkins said there were a handful who did not currently have it and that it would behoove the city to look into a plan to help cover the costs in exchange for a firefighter agreeing to stick around for a specific amount of time.

Frank said if the firefighters wanted to bring that forward, they could talk about it, but it had not been brought to the table yet. But according to Savoie, the union has asked for that very thing — saying the city could take money out of its training budget to send people to school without the union’s consent.

Negotiations will continue into the future, and the hope is the contract will be settled soon, Savoie said.

“The morale is down because it is a mass exodus,” he said. “A guy just quit today — just put his resignation in. His dad has been an Ocoee police officer for several years and (he) and his brother grew up in the city, and he wanted to be a firefighter. He can’t make it — he can’t take care of wife and his new baby on $13.70 an hour. … It’s sad.”