Negotiators for city, firefighters reach deal

After months of intense, closed-door bargaining, negotiators for the Rawlings-Blake administration and Baltimore's fire unions have reached an agreement that would give firefighters a 16.5 percent pay raise in exchange for working more hours, according to documents reviewed by The Baltimore Sun.

The agreement, which rank-and-file union members will vote on Tuesday, represents a concession from City Hall after firefighters overwhelmingly rejected an earlier proposal. Under the new deal, firefighters' hours would increase from 42 to 47.5 per week — a 12.5 percent increase — in exchange for the raise in the new three-year contract.

Pay for a firefighter with 10 years experience would rise from about $55,000 to $64,075.

The longer workweek would mean city officials could save millions by cutting overtime pay and shrinking the department by up to 140 firefighters, positions that would be eliminated through attrition. The department currently employs about 1,300 firefighters.

"You cannot expect to leave the negotiating table with a win-win if you're not willing to compromise," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Monday. She praised the union's negotiating team, including firefighters union president Rick Hoffman. "I was extremely encouraged by his dedication. He clearly understood the balancing act," she said.

Hoffman did not respond to a request for comment. Fire officers union president Michael Campbell declined to comment.

The unions will begin voting on the deal as early as 8 a.m.

For months, the administration and the unions have been sparring over a proposal to require firefighters to work longer hours, including some 24-hour shifts. The latest deal offers a choice: Firefighters can vote for a schedule that requires them to work two 24-hour shifts over three days, followed by five days off; or they can vote to add one 24-hour shift a month to their current schedule.

The agreement states that no firefighters could be laid off or demoted as a result of the new schedule.

Councilman Robert W. Curran, chairman of the council's labor committee, praised the agreement Monday. "I would hope the firefighters and officers approve this as a long-term necessity for the city's financial health," Curran said. "As long as the current level of suppression can be maintained, I think it's a good deal."

City officials say the move to a longer week and some 24-hour shifts — mirroring staffing trends in other large U.S. cities, including Houston — will save about $72 million for cash-strapped Baltimore over nine years while giving its 1,300 firefighters a huge pay raise. If approved, firefighters would receive a 2 percent raise retroactive to July 1 and a 14.5 percent raise on Jan. 1.

Paramedics, who will not be asked to work longer hours due to the busy nature of their jobs, would receive a 6 percent raise.

The plan is one of the overhauls proposed in Rawlings-Blake's 10-year plan aimed at addressing a projected $750 million financial shortfall.

Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chairman of the public safety committee, said the new proposal represents a "happy medium" for the city and the unions.

"We don't live in a my-way-or-the-highway world," Scott said. "They're the ones on the street. They're the ones doing the work. It's great that the firefighters are getting a raise. It's also great that the city will save millions of dollars."

In March, Baltimore's firefighters rejected a proposal that would have required them to work 49 hours per week in exchange for a 12.5 percent raise — with 87 percent of union members voting against it.

They argued the proposal would represent a cut to their hourly pay and would be unfair to employees who have built their lives around a work schedule that's been in place for 20 years. Some firefighters also called the new schedule potentially unsafe, citing fatigue near the end of a 24-hour shift.

Among the 25 largest U.S. cities, 19 fire departments require longer work weeks than Baltimore does now. The city's firefighters work two 10-hour day shifts, followed by two 14-hour night shifts, then get four days off. They work an average of 42 hours a week.

Los Angeles, Phoenix and Memphis, Tenn., among others, require firefighters to work 56 hours per week. Detroit, the nation's busiest city for fires, requires them to work an average of 48 hours per week.

Washington, D.C., requires firefighters to work 24 hours straight, before giving them three days off, with an average workweek of 42 hours. Of the largest cities, only firefighters in New York City, who work an average of 40 hours per week, work fewer hours than those in Baltimore.

Howard and Montgomery counties require firefighters to work for 24 hours, followed by 48 hours of rest. Anne Arundel County firefighters work a 24-hour shift, with 72 hours off. Baltimore County uses a schedule similar to Baltimore's current model.

Under federal law, firefighters must be paid overtime if they work more than 53 hours in a week.

Terms of deal

Baltimore firefighters will vote Tuesday on a proposed new contract. Details include:

•Workweek would rise from 42 hours to 47.5 hours.

•Pay would go up 16.5 percent over three years.

•City would save $72 million over nine years by reducing staff through attrition, paying less overtime.

taff through attrition, paying less overtime.

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