Boston v. Firefighters Hearing Begins

Today begins the big arbitration showdown between the City of Boston and its firefighters of Local 718. The firefighters are the only city union that hasn't agreed to a contract from the last cycle -- they have been without a contract since 2006.

Each side gets to ask the arbitrator for four changes to the agreement. I have the city's proposal, but not the firefighters'.

I do know that one of the union's four requests, naturally, is raises. I don't know exactly how much they're asking for, but the city is arguing that the firefighters should get less than what the police and teachers negotiated. That's because A) those unions agreed, in exchangem, to increase the employees' contribution to health insurance premiums, which the firefighters have not agreed to, and B) those contracts were negotiated before the economic collapse, and now there's less money.

The city is not asking for the health insurance contribution increase as one of their four requests. Nor is it asking for what it terms "significant operational concessions that would make it easier for the city to manage the Fire Department."

What Menino is asking for are reforms intended to reduce some of the worst abuses that have been the subject of much recent critical reporting -- quite possibly because the mayor has been leaking the abuses out to put public pressure on the union.

Here are the city's four requests:

1) A cap on so-called "longevity pay," officially known as the Transitional Career Awards Program (TCAP). These are automatic raises that kick in after each five years on the job. It maxes out after 25 years, at which point, the city claims, it's added about an extra $9000 a year to the employee's salary. Because of how TCAP is calculated, that max will go up a little, depending on how much of a raise the firefighters win in arbitration. The city is asking to cap the max at its current level.

2) Tighter sick-leave rules. As the city concedes, the sick leave rules it previously negotiated with the union has basically given the firefighters free rein to cheat the system. The city wants to require a doctor's note after 10 absences; to remove the enormous incentive for sick leave on holidays, and to prohibit firefighters from working overtime immediately after taking a sick day.

3) Random drug and alcohol testing. In its prehearing memorandum, the city flat-out declares that "There is no question that the Department has a drug and alcohol abuse problem." Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, doesn't it? Menino has been publicly demanding random testing for over a year now, and the union has been demanding something in exchange, which the Mayor calls blackmail.

4) Clamp-down on "above grade" pension abuse. The Globe did a great job on this last year, and there is an ongoing federal investigation. Here's how the scam works: when a firefighter wants to retire, he gets his superior to take a little time off, so he can fill in for him. While filling in at the higher position, the firefighter suffers a career-ending injury. Under the current rules (again, put in during Menino's administration), he then gets to take disability retirement at the higher pay grade -- even if he was filling in for just one shift. In the memorandum, the city claims that "the overwhelming number of disability retirements" since the 2001 rule change have been these "acting out of grade" retirements.

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