Hoquiam firefighters and city officials came to an eleventh-hour agreement Wednesday evening to temporarily save the jobs of four firefighters who were supposed to be laid off as of Thursday.
The union local will vote on the agreement June 3, but it seems like the last best hope to save Hoquiam Fire Department jobs the city had written off only weeks ago as unsavable. If the union approves the agreement, it would drop its grievance against the city over staffing problems.
“I am really proud of our administrative staff and the members of our fire department who sat down and came to an agreement that avoids the laying off of four great employees,” Mayor Jack Durney said. “I believe we have started to mend relationships and are ready to start having a serious dialogue about how we fund public safety.”
The tentative agreement spells out changes to the handling of ambulance transfers, out of town calls and non-emergency calls. The union has complained current staffing procedures are unsafe because they sometimes leave only three firefighters in the station while the other two to four people on shift are working on non-emergency calls.
The city and the union have never agreed on the extent of the problem, but Wednesday’s agreement takes some steps to improve it.
“We worked into the language to make sure we’re making every attempt to maintain five-person staffing within the city,” union president Doug Stankavich said. “For example, if we’re going to Humptulips now, we’re calling in two people so we have five people at the station that people expect to protect the city.”
Non-emergency calls like hospital transfers and MRI transports earn money for the district, which has been in serious financial difficulty.
“The city is hopeful that the changes made to the handling of ambulance transfers will result in enough increased revenue to get the city back to a balanced budget by the year end,” City Administrator Brian Shay said. “This agreement is a good start to collectively address a long-term solution to our serious budget problems.”
“It’s in our best interest to make sure we’re able to fill as many of those transfers as possible,” Stankavich added.
In return, the city agreed to delay the layoffs of the four firefighters at least until December, when the parties will meet again to evaluate the department’s finances.
If one of the four firefighters who were set to be laid off should quit or find another job, Stankavich said the union has agreed it would not fight a decision from the city to leave that position unfilled.
“That one position we had was the floater position, which is essentially an extra position lately,” he explained. “The local has no interest in fighting that one position as long as it’s done through attrition. If any further position were to be lost, we certainly would have another battle on our hands. But we don’t see that happening, and we have an opportunity over the next six months to find a viable option to sustain our department at its current level.”
The agreement was hammered out during a marathon negotiation session lasting most of the day Wednesday.
“It was a long row to hoe that day alone, let alone all the blood, sweat and tears leading up to it over the past seven months,” Stankavich said.
“We’ve finally gotten to a point where we’re working collaboratively, and that was the whole point to begin with.”