Wilmington firefighters, city disagree on shift changes

WILMINGTON, Delaware (WPVI) -- After more than three years of back-and-forth offers and negotiations, the battle over a contract between firefighters and the City of Wilmington has come to a head.

The disagreement has been through phases of negotiation and mediation. Now, both sides are engaged in their final option: binding arbitration.

"We've been without a contract since June 2016," said Joe Leonetti, Jr., president of Wilmington Firefighters Association Local 1590. His union represents the city's firefighters.
"We're the only city employee that doesn't get time and a half overtime. We're the only city employee that gives hours back and don't get compensated for them," he said.

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The firefighters disagree with a new shift proposal. It would require firefighters to work for 24 hours and then have 48 hours off. Right now, firefighters work 24 hours and get 72 hours off.
"The current system, 24 working, 72 off requires that we have four platoons in place. Four platoons we can't afford," said Wilmington Mayor Michael Purzycki.

But firefighters say the 72 hours are what they need to rest.

"This is a taxing job mentally and physically, so those 72 hours give us a day to decompress, be with our families," said Leonetti, Jr., adding that some firefighters also need the time to work and make extra money for their families.

Purzycki says the new proposal provides sufficient rest time.

"Most firefighters have other jobs. So if they're resting, they're telling us they're working, they have other jobs," said Purzycki.

The deficit causes a need for what's known as rolling bypasses. In that practice, the city closes a fire station for a day.

"If we were to fully staff the department so we did not have to do rolling bypass, it would be another million to million and a half dollars," the mayor said.

But firefighters say rolling bypasses can create dangerous situations.

"We lost three members in September 2016. The closest engine company, which was less than a mile away, was shut down that night," said Leonetti, Jr.

The new proposed shift equates to firefighters working about 13 extra days per year.

They say they're willing to compromise if the city stops rolling bypasses and doesn't lay off any firefighters.

"Rolling bypasses and no layoffs is our line in the sand," said Leonetti, Jr.

Mayor Purzycki says the city has heard that message in earnest.

"We have no interest in laying people off," he said. "I promised the union that, on an institutionalized regular basis, we will not have rolling bypass."

After three years, both sides want to get a deal done. But perhaps no one wants it more than the residents who are caught in the middle.

"We need to know there's enough fireman and enough equipment to save lives," said Rosalind Bailey of Wilmington.

The next step is for an independent arbitrator to look at both offers and decide whether to accept the firefighters' union offer or the city's offer. Both sides would be required to comply with the arbitrator's decision.
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