Agents for the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), who were certified as the exclusive bargaining agent of Plant City’s rank and file firefighters and paramedics in Nov. 2021, were unable to come to an agreement on five issues related to employment contract negotiations between itself and Plant City’s negotiation team for the next fiscal year. After several months of attempting to resolve these issues, the IAFF declared an impasse in Oct. and, by law, the City Commission, as the legislative body, heard the positions of the union and the administration at a special public hearing this week and then took action to resolve the issues.
1) Wages- The Union proposed a three-year contract that would raise wages by 36% over three years. It proposed implementing a step plan that would provide annual increases of 4% and 8% across the board each of the three years of the contract. The City rejected the step plan and counter-offered a one-year contract with an increase of wages of 6% plus a merit increase of 4% on the employees’ anniversaries after receiving a successful annual evaluation.
2) Living Radius- The City proposed that firefighters hired after the effective date of the agreement will reside within Hillsborough County or 20 miles of City Hall. Union negotiators don’t support this residency requirement.
3) Half-Time Pay- The Union proposed to include vacation time in calculating entitlement to overtime pay. The City rejected this proposal.
4) Sick and Vacation Days- The Union requested that bargaining unit members receive the same number of sick or vacation shifts as employees receive sick/vacation days. The City disputed this because firefighter shifts are longer than other City employees’ shifts.
A dozen firefighters sat stoically in the meeting room, dressed in union t-shirts or their official uniforms, as they intently listened to 30-minute presentations by attorney Robert McKee, who represented the Firefighters Union, and attorney Tom Gonzalez of GreyRobinson, who represented The City of Plant City.
During his remarks, McKee reminded commission members that firefighters put their lives on the line every day for residents of Plant City. He clarified his position about the need for a three-year contract to provide continuity for workers but most of his remarks focused on closing the wage gap between Plant City’s firefighters and those working in surrounding cities and counties. McKee cited a study whose findings highlighted the disparity in pay between Plant City firefighters and those that work in neighboring departments. He claimed the pay gap is one reason 18 employees left the department during the last five years. One of the most recent employees to leave joined Tampa Fire-Rescue and saw a 28% jump in annual pay.
“The biggest issue here is wages and the union wholeheartedly believes that wages must increase to help recruit and retain these well-trained individuals,” said McKee.
When it was Gonzalez’ turn to speak, he also expressed his deep regard for firefighters’ commitment to their jobs.
“The best way to put it is that everything you’ve heard about the wage disparities is all true but if the commission agrees to what the Union is asking for they’ll be getting something that no other employee in the city of Plant City has, which is a locked-in look at what their salary will be three years down the road,” said Gonzalez. “If you take out that step plan the pay difference we’re talking about this year is only two percent.”
He said the 10 percent increase is in-line with raises proposed for all other city employees. “Even if we give the Union everything they’re asking for, we won’t close the gap between this department and other agencies,” he said.
He didn’t envy the decision required by the commission. “It’s awfully easy to be a lawyer but the hard part is this commission deciding what is in the best interest of the public and I think our proposal meets those needs,” said Gonzalez.
When public comments were allowed, Camryn Henry spoke on her partner, firefighter Nathan Lamb’s behalf since he was working and unable to attend the meeting. The pregnant woman, expecting a son in April, spoke of the realities of not being able to live on his firefighter salary.
Even with their financial challenges, Henry said Lamb has passion for his job and love of Plant City. “He already bought our baby a toy firetruck and onesies with firetrucks on them,” she joked.
Lamb’s family lives in Plant City and the couple is trying to buy a permanent home within the city’s boundaries. Luckily, Henry works in Tampa at TECO and earns a good salary (significantly higher than Lamb’s) and Lamb works a second job doing carpentry and construction work.
Members of the City Commission shared their thoughts before the vote.
City manager Bill McDaniel disapproved of the comparison of Plant City to the larger jurisdictions of Tampa and Hillsborough County. “Plant City operates on an annual budget of less than $100 million while Tampa and Hillsborough County have operating budgets many times that amount,” he remarked. “Every city position we have pays less than City of Tampa and Hillsborough County because its jurisdictions are larger and so is the tax base.”
He said it’s also important to note that the city hasn’t been ignoring the issue of pay and over the last several years has significantly increased pay for all city employees. “There’s been a lot of work done to keep our employees at a competitive rate of pay,” he said.
Mayor Nate Kilton said this was one of the most difficult decisions the he’s had to make in his six years on the Commission. “I want you to know how much I respect and appreciate our first responders,” he said. “I know how difficult your jobs are and don’t take you for granted.”
A motion was made to approve the City Manager’s recommendation. The motion was seconded then the votes were cast. With a five to zero vote, the City Manager’s recommendation was approved and the decision is final and unappealable.
Firefighters’ reactions to the vote was subdued as they quietly shuffled outside the building to discuss the results. Firefighter David Jackson said he wasn’t surprised at the outcome. “We always knew how it was going to go,” he said.
Firefighter Fred Hawkins was emotional as he spoke about his love for his firefighter brothers and his desire to give his three-year-old son the best life possible even though he struggles to pay for daycare, which eats up most of his salary. “It’s really hard to live on a firefighter’s salary,” he said.
When asked what was next for them, they quickly responded they’re going to continue to do what they always have done. “We’re going to polish our boots, stand tall and show up for work tomorrow and be there when others need us,” one said.
These issues will be included in a collective bargaining agreement that contains both the agreed-upon terms of the contract and those settled by the Commission and will be ratified by the bargaining unit and City Manager and then returned to the City Commission for final approval. The contract will be in effect until Sept. 30, 2023.