Jefferson Parish President John Young’s administration and the union representing the fire department that protects most of Metairie and Old Jefferson have agreed on a new pay plan that — once approved by the Parish Council — would result in raises for about 250 firefighters.
However, because of a pending, union-initiated investigation into whether several parish employees who do firefighting-related work are properly classified, Young’s administration has not presented the pay plan to the council for consideration, and that has infuriated firefighters who want their raises now.
“I just don’t believe that the fire personnel in Jefferson Parish should bear the brunt of the possible misclassification of employees,” Robert Burkett, the leader of the East Bank Consolidated Fire Department’s union, told the Parish Council on Wednesday. “If we can’t resolve it between the administration and the firefighters, then I’m going to ask the council to step forward and do the right thing — or submit it to the voters for a vote.”
The council spent hours hearing from both Burkett and the Young administration. Several members said they support giving the firefighters raises, and they urged both sides to resolve the issue before the council’s next meeting on May 13.
But with dozens of firefighters packing the council chambers in their navy blue department T-shirts, that appeared to be more easily said than done.
As the administration tells it, after long negotiations, it agreed with the Fire Department on terms of a revised pay plan in December. Hard figures weren’t immediately provided, but the plan calls for a first-year firefighter’s base pay to jump from about $22,950 to about $25,035, excluding supplemental and guaranteed overtime compensation.
To implement the new pay plan would cost the parish about $3.5 million the first year and about $1 million annually thereafter, officials estimated.
Things became complicated when — at the request of the union — the Jefferson Parish Fire Civil Service Board asked Louisiana State Examiner Robert Lawrence’s office to study whether some 30 parish employees who perform firefighting-related duties should be classified as belonging to the East Bank Consolidated Fire Department, said James Keen, chief administrative assistant of operations under Young. If they are reclassified, the new pay plan would apply to them, increasing the plan’s cost to the parish.
The union had been seeking such a review since at least 2013, Keen said. However, the inquiry didn’t formally open until the past two months. The investigation involves the answering of questionnaires by employees whose classifications are under review.
As of Wednesday, the parish had no way to determine precisely how many more employees the new pay plan might apply to; how much it would ultimately cost in salary, benefits and retirement contributions; and whether the Fire Department’s dedicated millage could sustain that price tag, said Jennifer Van Vrancken Dwyer, Young’s chief operating officer.
“We had a goal of raising the base pay for firefighters, taking care of them for the length of their careers … so it’s very frustrating to us that this twist has occurred and (raised) questions as to the ultimate cost,” said Dwyer, who insisted the administration remains committed to implementing the new pay plan. “It makes us very uncomfortable, because we don’t have a bottom-line dollar figure on the check that we will need to write.”
The administration said it hadn’t learned of the state examiner’s investigation until a March 10 Fire Civil Service Board meeting, where Keen spotted a description of the probe on the agenda. Burkett disputed that and argued it wasn’t his union’s fault, even if that was the case. At a minimum, the topic of the investigation was on other meeting agendas prior to that date, he said.
Dwyer countered, “This may have been on a long-ago agenda, but it was never part of recent negotiations, and we talked about lots of subjects.”
Nonetheless, what concerned Burkett more was the fact that the findings of the state examiner’s investigation can be appealed, and appeals often are lengthy processes.
“The firefighter personnel can’t continue to work at starting parish-provided pay of $9.19 an hour for years and years and years until this can be concluded,” Burkett said.