For 16 months, the administration of the St. Francois County Ambulance District and the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Local 3705 have been attempting to negotiate a contract for employees of the district. Since Jan. 1, 2017, the employees servicing the local community have been working without contracts.
After a Monday board meeting, however, it seems that the two sides are nearing an agreement to provide security for employees and employer alike.
Newly-elected Local 3705 President Mark Mucci addressed the district’s board in open session and said the union’s hope is that differences can be set aside to allow for an agreement to be reached.
“We do not take full responsibility for the breakdown in negotiations, but accept our shortcomings and vow to do better and invite this board back to the table for real, good-faith contract negotiations so we can work toward labor peace and concentrate all of our collected energy on serving this community,” Mucci said.
Mucci contended the district had faced a loss of staff due to not having a contract in place and will have a harder time filling positions until potential employees perceive the positions to be stable.
“This district has already lost 20 percent of its staff voluntarily in the last 24 months,” Mucci said. “We have to start healing this organization so we can fulfill our mission. At this pace, we will have to prepare the community for the real possibility of the shortage of response crews, due to the lack of qualified applications and frequent voluntary departures of staff to other emergency response organizations.”
Mucci said the union’s position has remained unchanged, that a verbal agreement had been made between the board’s negotiations committee to keep the old contract in place until a new one had been adopted, with all benefits being dated back to Jan. 1, 2017. The committee at the time was made up of Chairman Chuck Farr, Treasurer Susie Webb and former board member Al Sullivan.
The district had responded previously to this claim, saying that even if such an agreement were made, that committee was not authorized to do so on behalf of the board.
Specific cases of perceived mishandling of employee matters were raised, with Mucci saying there needs to be greater accountability to the administration.
“Our membership has real damages from lost wages and benefits, resulting from this breach of contract and we ask that you reconsider,” he said. “We, in addition, ask that this board create a policy manual jointly with this local that will guide this organization, create accountability for all and be applied as it is written.”
Chairman Farr thanked Mucci for speaking and said the board would take the union’s position under advisement.
Other board members voiced their opinions on the matter, with Board Member Sonja Hampton saying that an agreement needs to be reached for the sake of the community.
“I think we seriously have to look at the fact that we have, probably, the lowest morale that we’ve had in a long time, across the board,” she said. “And we need to work on it. We need to fix it because the people of St. Francois County are ultimately the ones that are going to suffer for it.”
Following the open session of the board meeting, Mucci addressed the board in closed session as well, which he said was beneficial to the continued negotiations.
“After executive session, when I got to speak to them a little more — I can’t say that they had reversed their decision, but that meeting was very productive,” Mucci said. “I think we’ve got everybody back on track to work to a positive resolution of the situation so we can get back to what our true business is, which is serving the community.”
District Administrator David Tetrault said the meeting was indeed productive, whether he or the board agreed with everything said by Mucci like the claim that the district was facing a staffing crisis.
“We’ve had no staffing issues,” Tetrault said. “We’ve always met our staffing pattern and we’ve always met the community’s needs for ambulance response times. I’m not sure where that’s coming from. We have 30 part-time people and we don’t have any holes in our schedule.”
Unfortunately, Tetrault said reaching an agreement is not as simple as some might like it to be. He said throughout the process, some of the things insisted on by union negotiators have been financially unfeasible.
“When you look at our district and 50 employees, we just can’t afford that high of a raise,” he said. “If you look at the middle employees, between those who have been here the longest and those who are newest, the middle employees would have gotten a $15,000 raise. That’s unheard of nowadays. That would have absolutely bankrupted the district.”
In addition, Tetrault said the district must consider its offered healthcare benefits against the rising costs of healthcare. For the district, those costs have risen 39 percent, with $1.2 million being spent by the district in healthcare costs last year. He said some difficult decisions will have to be made at the negotiation table in terms of coverage.
With 16 months of continued negotiation and frustration, tensions have understandably risen. Tetrault said the board discussed bringing in an impartial third party to help mediate the situation.
“The board did talk about, if there is any animosity, that we could bring in a neutral third party to come in and figure out where we should go,” he said. “A neutral party to come in and say, ‘Let’s look at what management’s doing and let’s look at what the union’s doing and let’s try to work this out together.’”
Tetrault said offers will be sent to Local 3705 later this week from the board, with an agreement hopefully to follow.
Mucci said he is optimistic that negotiations will soon result in an agreement between the two parties that will benefit all parties involved, including the community.
“We’re just trying to find a contract resolution to give security to the employees, which in turn gives security to the community,” he said. “First and foremost, that’s what we’re really about. We want to serve the community. Ninety percent of us live in this community, our families live here, our friends and neighbors — that’s who we want to serve.
“The board allowing me to come and address them as the leader of our local, I think that was very helpful in opening up communications. I am very optimistic that this problem should be solved very, very soon after this talk.”
“I think we seriously have to look at the fact that we have, probably, the lowest morale that we’ve had in a long time, across the board. And we need to work on it. We need to fix it because the people of St. Francois County are ultimately the ones that are going to suffer for it.” Sonja Hampton, SFCAD board member
Jacob Scott is a reporter with the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3616 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.