Firefighter union prevails

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By Carol A. Clark

A ruling came down Friday from First Judicial District Court in favor of the Los Alamos Firefighters’ Association and its right to collective bargaining for its membership.

Judge Daniel Sanchez found that Los Alamos County violated the Public Employees Bargaining Act (PEBA), by entering into contracts with individual union members that were subject to collective bargaining with the union.

The local union stated in a press release that PEBA mandates exclusive bargaining rights between unions and employers. In choosing to provide paramedic contracts directly to union members without first negotiating them through the union, the county disregarded its own ordinance in addition to state and federal, according to the union.

Los Alamos County Attorney Mary McInerny explained that Friday’s summary judgment, issued verbally by Sanchez, concerns a contract the county has with firefighters volunteering for paramedic school, a program the county has supported for 10 years.

“Fourteen firefighters have taken advantage of this specialized training opportunity and have successfully completed the school; only two of those firefighters have failed to fulfill the obligation set forth in the contract,” she said.

McInerny expressed disappointment in the judgment, saying it involves only one of two counts outlined in the documents filed in court – the second count regarding restitution has yet to be decided.

“We’ll be continuing to pursue the case on the second count, and evaluating our options for an appeal on the first count,” McInerny said. “Our primary interest has been, and will continue to be, safeguarding our taxpayers’ dollars. We support specialty programs such as paramedic school – which are very expensive, and we merely ask that the firefighters remain employed with us for at least two years. That seems like a reasonable request.”

The county pays for trainees’ tuition, travel, per diem and other expenses, as well as their full salaries, including overtime, for as much as one year while they attend the specialized school, she said, adding that the advanced training provides county residents a highly skilled paramedic staff.

It also enables firefighters to receive higher wages because the training enables them to obtain the highest EMS rated license in New Mexico.

“In return, the county asked the firefighters to complete (at least) two years of service with the county after completing training and EMS licensure before taking a job elsewhere,” she said.

Lt. Flavio Martinez, president of the Los Alamos Firefighters’ Association, International Association of Fire Fighters Local #3279, estimates between five and 10 contracts are now void.

The firefighters don’t have to stay with LAFD, he said, and they don’t have to pay back the training cost.

“It’s too bad we had to go to court on this – we would have rather worked it out through negotiations but they didn’t want to do that,” said Martinez, who has been employed by LAFD for 18 years.

The county first brought suit against EMTs Michael Dickman and John Paul Martinez in August 2006 for leaving LAFD before the agreed two-year minimum.

“The union intervened and we came into it in the middle of the case,” said attorney Barry Paisner, a partner in the Santa Fe office of Hinkle, Hensley, Shanor & Martin L.L.P., representing the union.

“We filed a motion to dismiss the case by summary judgment ...  we believe and the judge agreed that the county was acting illegally in ‘direct dealing’ with individual union members and it had to stop. The contracts are now void and non-enforceable.”

Paisner described training costs claimed by the county as “grossly inflated.”

The actual training costs for everything involved was nearly $86,500 for Dickman and Martinez, McInerny said, because the nearest acceptable training program at that time was in Roswell. Current costs are actually less, she said, because training time required for certification is shorter and training is now available at Santa Fe Community College.

McInerny explained there are two ways to meet the contract obligation: stay and work or repay training costs based on time employed with the fire department post training. In the case of Dickman, he left immediately following his training, McInerny said. The claim against Martinez was less because he worked seven months before resigning.

There also is a provision in the contract that in the event of a family hardship requiring a firefighter to move away, the training cost would be forgiven, she said.

McInerny noted the county has yet to receive the written judgment from the court.

Editor’s note: Calls to reach Dickman and Martinez and their Albuquerque attorney Frederick Mowrer were not immediately returned.