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Boston FFs See Major Pay Increase; Random Drug Tests

Boston FFs See Major Pay Increase; Random Drug Tests

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Boston Globe via YellowBrix

April 20, 2010

BOSTON – A labor arbitration panel has ruled that Boston firefighters must submit to random drug and alcohol testing in exchange for a 19 percent raise over four years, a significant bump that will dwarf the pay increases for other city unions.

The decision, released yesterday after a bitter four-year standoff, is largely a victory for the firefighters, who the city says will receive a wage boost that is 5 percent higher than what police unions received. The size of the award puts Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration in a precarious position as negotiations begin this spring with the city’s 44 collective bargaining units, heightening expectations for raises.

But the firefighters’ union, Local 718, says the panel’s decree will make the workers the first in the city subject to random urine tests for drugs and alcohol. Police unions face annual scheduled tests of their hair, a much more exhaustive method of testing for illicit substances, according to the city.

The award, retroactive to July 1, 2006, and including a 2.5 percent raise on the last day of this fiscal year, will cost the city an estimated $74 million, according to the Menino administration. It is $27 million more than the city had squirreled away for the contract over the last four years.

Both sides are bound by the 2-1 ruling, which arrived at City Hall via fax yesterday afternoon. The panel met over the weekend in Albany, N.Y., before reaching its decision, which many had not expected until next month.

“I am required by law to support this award and to submit its finding to the City Council, who will decide whether or not to accept and fund the decision. I am not, however, bound to stay silent on the facts,’’ Menino said last night in a statement. “This contract provides a 19 percent raise, which is 5 percent more expensive than the wages provided to other public safety agencies during successful negotiations.’’

The decision ends a dispute that had stalled in part over the testing, which the city wanted but firefighters had resisted without a significant pay increase in return. The firefighters’ union endured heavy criticism for its resistance after autopsy reports showed that two members who died in a restaurant fire in August 2007 may have been impaired. One had traces of cocaine in his blood, and the other had a blood-alcohol content of 0.27, nearly three times the legal limit to drive in Massachusetts.

Edward Kelly, president of Local 718 of the International Association of Firefighters, said he had not seen the decision, so he could not discuss specifics.

“The mayor chose to take us to arbitration,’’ Kelly said. “We are both bound by the arbitrator’s award. We look forward to getting this behind us and focusing on being the best fire department we can be.’’

“I think this is definitely a win for the firefighters and a loss for the city because of the impact it will have a future contract negotiations,’’ said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofit groups. “This is basically saying that arbitration is a way to get more than if you negotiate. . . It creates a whole new dynamic for the next round.’’

Tyler and others have urged the City Council to hold a hearing to explore the broader impact of the award on the finances of the city — which in recent weeks has proposed closing four libraries, pulling staff out of eight community centers, and laying off up to 250 employees — before voting on whether to fund the contract.

“The council is not going to gavel this through,’’ its president, Michael P. Ross, said last night. “The council will most certainly hold a hearing. We need the firefighters to understand that they are our partners in governance and that our current system of finances is unsustainable.’’

In particular, Ross said, he wanted to talk to the union about health care costs, which the Menino administration has estimated will rise by $20 million next year for all city workers.

The city’s 1,400 firefighters have been working without a contract since July 2006. The union had been asking for pay and benefit increases equivalent to a 21 percent raise over the four-year contract. The city’s final offer stood at 14 percent.

Arbitration hearings began in March 2009 and stretched for 18 days. The 19 percent figure the city cited in the award comes from five raises over four years, a 3 percent increase for hazardous materials duty, and an average of 2.5 percent per firefighter for longevity pay.

New firefighters would receive no longevity pay, and longtimers could receive much more than 2.5 percent, according to the city.

The arbitration panel also gave firefighters a half-year pay freeze, splitting the difference of what other city unions accepted. Some agreed to a full-year freeze, while others did not take one.

But the real difference between the fire award and the other public safety contracts is the fifth raise of 2.5 percent, scheduled for June 30. The city had prepared for a pay increase of one-half percent.