At the Sept. 15 Northeast fire district meeting, board member Bridget Quinlisk Dailey questioned numerous bills, for items such as office supplies, and voted “no” three times on approving district bills.

Yet she said “yes” when union shop steward Greg Wood asked the board to reinstate a union contract that would commit the district to paying out up to 2,736 sick-leave hours for any employee who left the district.

According to the district’s employee handbook Vol. 2 Section 17.05, “Employees may convert accumulated and unused sick leave days to pay upon separation from service with the fire district.”

Dailey did not question what this would cost the district.

“I don’t understand why we can’t take this one thing off of our plate right now,” Dailey said, regarding the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2665 union bargaining agreement.

Board chairman Derek Mays replied, “My position is that not all portions of that contract are beneficial to the district. I don’t think we have the room to be relinquishing funds that we don’t possibly have.”

“What funds are you specifically talking about?” Dailey asked Mays.

“Sick leave is one of them,” he said. “That’s way out of control.”

About two weeks ago, a draft of the new sick-leave policy showed up on the kitchen table of the Northeast fire house. Mays asked that all employees review and comment on the policy before the board approves it, said district attorney Anthony Gray.

Under the union contract with the district – which was terminated in June 2007 by the previous administration – employees earned 48 hours of sick leave for every 28-day work cycle, for a maximum of 2,736 earned hours.

The new employee policy would allow a maximum of 720 hours. To compensate for fewer sick leave hours, the new policy would extend “light-duty” period from three to six months, in which injured or pregnant employees could perform jobs within their capability.

At the Sept. 15 meeting, Wood read aloud a letter, signed by all district union members and four others. It stated that the previous administration terminated the union contract prematurely in June 2007, rather than Dec. 31, which the agreement’s procedures of termination required.

Because of this, union members feel the old contract should be put back in place until the board members can negotiate a new contract with the union starting Jan. 1, 2011.

Under the old contract, employees did not receive a payout for sick-leave hours when they left the district, said Brad Peters, executive vice president of Local 2665. The provision in the district employee handbook for paying out sick leave was added under a former fire chief, Peters said.

However, with that provision in place, if the old union contract were to go back into place for the months of October and November, employees who wanted to leave or retire could convert up to 2,736 hours of sick leave into pay, said Gray.

In regards to the new policy, Wood said, “The new administration chose to pick our contract apart and institute the parts that were beneficial to the district and ignore the parts that are of benefit to the employees on the floor.”

Frustrated firefighters

Northeast firefighters are frustrated because they have no idea how many sick leave hours they have, said firefighter Brian Fields.

Fire Chief Angelia Elgin said that the paper trails for calculating sick leave remain inadequate. In June, she proposed to the board that the district track sick-leave hours online using software. This would also allow employees to have full access to all of their payroll information and W-2’s – at no charge to the district.

In the past, Fields said employees would abuse sick leave. Those who had outside part-time jobs would call in sick to work their other jobs. They would then work overtime later that week.

“The sick-leave abuse is tied into the increase in overtime,” Fields said. “And the district was losing money.”

The district’s budget – approved in April – includes $250,000 for overtime; last year’s budget was around $240,000. In the first three months of 2010, overtime costs totaled about $100,000.

Fields said that some district union firefighters had intimidated non-union firefighters by saying that once the union contract is back in place, the employees who were hired under the former fire chief will be fired because of the agreement’s regulations.

Brad Peters said, “Our union has no desire to have any firefighters lose their jobs. Our only goal is to turn part-time employees into full-time members, if possible.”

Fields said Wood never approached him about his opinion of reinstating the union contract.

Chief Elgin addressed this in the Sept. 15 meeting. She said to Greg Wood that the union contract discussions should include all employees and the union particularly should include her in the conversations. When she became fire chief, she said that phone calls to speak with Local 2665 officials were not returned.

“I should be allowed to have the opportunity to even cheer for you for the board if that is feasible for all employees,” Elgin said to Wood.

“Because frankly, if we go back to past practices, a lot of the African Americans that are here now will be gone. And we know that.”

Before she could finish, Wood started yelling repeatedly, “That is an out and out lie!”

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