Following a union boycott of voluntary overtime, New Orleans Fire Department (NOFD) Superintendent Tim McConnel blasted New Orleans Fire Fighters Association (NOFFA) union leadership in a press conference.
“Unfortunately, the union leadership has chosen to organize a job action at this critical juncture when the City of New Orleans is experiencing the catastrophe of the Hard Rock, which is requiring extra staff from our department and on the eve of Mardi Gras. Their decision demonstrates a lack of leadership on the part of union elected officials.” Mcconnel later accused the union of attempting to “capitalize on” the city’s situation.
In a response issued by NOFFA on Tuesday, the union stated that “the timing of this decision is not intended to coincide with the Mardi Gras season or the Hard Rock disaster.” Instead, the union notes that the membership demanded action last December after the Chief Administration Officer issued a policy that continues to allow political appointees full discretion on NOFD promotions.
“This policy was issued, with no warning, while we negotiated in good faith with the city for a fair and agreeable alternative to a promotional process that results in taxpayer borne litigation and drives away good employees,” said NOFFA president Aaron Mischler.
“At the same time, we had spent months working with Mayor Cantrell’s administration to draft retirement legislation for the upcoming 2020 legislative session that would help remedy the need for our youngest members to choose between staying or going. We asked our membership to stand down in hopes that repairs to their retirement system would calm the storm and – trusting the city – they agreed. On January 17th, three days before the deadline to file this legislation, the city informed us that they would not be supporting the changes this year. This left firefighters feeling deliberately misled.”
The NOFD has hired only 94 firefighters since 2012, 25 percent of whom left the department within their first three years. In addition, the NOFD has been without a hiring list since 2017, and has been relying on voluntary overtime to ensure that there are enough fire trucks staffed throughout the city. While structure fires are down nearly 50 percent, NOFFA notes that there has been a 148 percent increase in the number of emergency calls throughout the city. Lack of staffing has resulted in 22 percent fewer fighter fighters available to respond, and 8 fewer fire trucks.
According to numbers posted on Facebook by NOFFA, New Orleans Firefighters are volunteering to work up to 96 hours per week in order to keep staffing at the necessary levels to keep residents safe.
“New Orleans Firefighters have long expressed our concerns to City Hall about public and firefighter safety,” Mischler said. “Unfortunately, we are still fighting the same battles. The city refuses to address pay, retirement benefits, and promotional process all while the department continues to fail to attract new firefighters and cannot retain the few that they are able to hire.”
In his statement, McConnel noted that prior to Mayor Cantrell taking office, it had been 10 years since the NOFD had received a pay raise. After taking office, NOFD active firefighters were granted a 10 percent pay increase. “That shows this administration’s commitment to the firefighters and their dedication to them,” McConnel said.
McConnel also noted that while no firehouses are being closed at this time, he can’t predict what would happen should the firefighters choose a more extreme job action. “It would be something that we would have to deal with, but we would do what we need to do to keep people safe,” McConnel stated. “Obviously, we would like firefighters to report to work – and they are – but to work the overtime that they’ve worked over the years.”
“Firefighters will contine to show up to work as scheduled every day,” Michler responded, “but, until the city agrees to address the issues that plague our once great organization, we can no longer work unscheduled hours beyond our regular shifts.”
Shortly after his press conference yesterday, McConnel issued a directive cancelling firefighters’ vactions an annual leave until further notice, stating it was necessary to adequately protect the city. Firefighters may be able to preserve their vacations if they can prove that they have already spent money to take out-of-town trips, but exception requests will be handled on a case-by-case basis.