Report details union’s proposed contract

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By Carol A. Clark

Sticking points to a contract between local firefighters and the county include pay, benefits and remaining competitive with other fire departments, according to a fact-finders report provided to the Monitor.

Failed attempts to agree on the terms of a new contract are propelling the Los Alamos Firefighters’ Association Local 3279 closer to filing suit against Los Alamos County.

According to the report, the parties bargained to reach a contract to succeed the collective bargaining agreement that expired March 31, 2009.

Los Alamos County declared an “impasse” on April 7, 2009 and unilaterally imposed a 3-percent wage increase without union approval. The union filed a complaint with the Los Alamos County Labor Relations Board alleging prohibited practices under New Mexico law and the labor board ruled in favor of the union. Arbitrator Bruce Ponder was hired and also found in favor of the union.

“The parties assigned me the task of determining which last offer made by the parties was the most reasonable,” Ponder said in his report. “Based on my findings...I find the unions’ offer to be the most reasonable.”

In his report, Ponder said the most salient fact in the proceedings is the fire department’s agreement to provide emergency services to Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“In order to be employed by the county, a firefighter must obtain a high-level governmental security Q clearance,” he said. “A firefighter must live a professional and personal life above reproach. Beyond these rigorous requirements is the acknowledged risk to Los Alamos firefighters’ health and life.”

In addition to the requirements of the DOE contract, Los Alamos firefighters are more highly trained than any department in New Mexico, Ponder said. The LAFD is the only Class 1 rated fire department in the state and one of only a few in the nation sufficiently skilled to fight fires and provide emergency service to a DOE national laboratory, he said, adding that they had to go to Alameda County near Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to find a fire department with a comparable skill level.  The Los Alamos County Council rejected Ponder’s finding for the union at it’s Aug. 5 meeting.

Here is a list of the issues:

• The union asserts the specialized skill level warrants a higher pay raise

• The county’s last offer of a one-year agreement with a one-time 3 percent pay raise across the board would not create a comparable level of compensation to similar entities

• The county’s offer lacks any increase in benefits to bring it in line with Albuquerque and Santa Fe fire departments

• The county’s offer keeps a paramedics training reimbursement contract that was obtained through direct dealings with bargaining unit employees, which was declared a prohibited practice under state law

• The union’s last offer calls for equalizing the pay for driver engineers and level II firefighters.

• The unions’ offer also takes steps to improve the disparity in benefits between LAFD and comparable communities, changing incentive pay to be more in line with Albuquerque.

Cheryl Hofer, LAFD Administrative Services Manager said, “We are still in the impasse procedure so we cannot talk about the case.” Assistant County Attorney Dan Gonzalez said he is bound by an agreement with the union to not discuss the case.

Union President Flavio Martinez said his union prefers agreeing on a contract as opposed to going to court.