On Dec. 30, the commissioners of Vashon Fire & Rescue directed Fire Chief Charlie Krimmert to invite the leaders of its local firefighter’s union back to the bargaining table with the intention of negotiating a new leave policy for Vashon firefighters exposed to COVID-19.
The move, announced in a letter to the union’s current president, Randy Tonkin, followed a special hearing held on Dec. 28, where commissioners considered a grievance filed by the firefighters’ union, charging unfair pay practices during an incidence of COVID-19 exposure at the district in September.
The grievance, filed with VIFR on Nov. 5, was first denied in an eight-page response by Fire Chief Charles Krimmert on Dec. 3, leaving it in the hands of the commissioners.
The commissioners also denied the grievance in their Dec. 30 letter to Tonkin, saying the board did not agree that VIFR had violated its current collective bargaining agreement with firefighters. But at the same time, they instructed that the paid administrative leave policy of King County Medic One for cases of COVID-19 exposure, be referenced in new talks between the union and the fire chief.
At the hearing on Dec. 28, both Tonkin and the union’s president-elect, Ben Davidson, addressed the commissioners, as well as Krimmert and Sophia Mabee, an attorney with the Summit Law Group, group, which represents the district.
The grievance was centered on an incident that began on Sept. 22, when two firefighters were sent home by the department during their shift and ordered to quarantine due to potential on-the-job exposure to COVID-19 by a fellow staff member who tested positive for the coronavirus.
A third firefighter, who was scheduled to work later that week, was also ordered to quarantine for the same reason.
The grievance stated that while the first two firefighters received paid leave by the district for the unworked hours of their shifts, the third received no compensation for any portion of the 48-hour shift he was not allowed to work.
The actions of the administration, according to the grievance, violated several articles of a collective bargaining agreement signed between the district and the local that covers the period of Jan. 1, 2018, through Dec. 31, 2020. It also stated that the administration’s actions violated safety requirements by disincentivizing union members from reporting exposures and punishing those who did so.
As a remedy, the union asked the district to establish a policy of paid administrative leave for employees who are scheduled to work but are unable to do so due to employer-mandated quarantines.
Chief Krimmert’s written denial of the grievance said his administration had asked the union to work with the administration some time ago to address the impacts of the pandemic, but because of a lack of engagement by the local, no new pay agreements had been put into place in the district specifically related to COVID-19.
“Having not bargained a plan to vary from or supersede existing leave practices for how quarantines would be handled, the Administration understood that an employee’s individual sick leave accruals would be used while the employee was under quarantine,” Krimmert wrote.
But at the grievance hearing, held on Zoom, Davidson said that repeated efforts had been made to come to an agreement with the Fire Chief over the issue.
“This wasn’t our first choice,” Davidson told the commissioners, referring to the filing of the grievance. “We didn’t want our dirty linen exposed in the newspaper and we had lengthy conversations with Chief Krimmert. We thought it was too risky and we continued to press him. He said he was open, and we tried again and again.”
The grievance had only been filed, Davidson said, after these discussions with the chief went nowhere.
Tonkin said the union had provided a document to the district commissioner Andrew Johnson and the chief, asking that a policy of paid administrative leave be implemented by the district, rather than having firefighters withdraw hours from personal sick leave banks in the case of COVID-19 exposure.
This policy, Tonkin said, would align with many other nearby districts, including that of the Boeing Fire Department, where Vashon Fire Commissioner Chair Candy McCollough is employed. Tonkin also cited King County Medic One, whose employees serve as medics at VIFR, as having the type of paid administrative leave policy the Vashon union wanted to see put into place.
Davidson framed the issue as one of safety and best practices.
“The number one goal is the safety of crews, their families and the communities they protect and serve,” he said, warning that firefighters would be disincentivized to report COVID-19 exposures if they thought they would have to draw down their own sick leave banks in order to quarantine.
“Our goal here is not to create some financial benefit,” he said. “Our goal is to create a safe work environment, where people are telling people right away. Without paid leave in place, that’s not what happens.
As an example, Davidson cited another recent incident of potential COVID-19 exposure by a firefighter, in December, and the subsequent quarantine of four additional staff members who were exposed to the possibly infected firefighter. (On Dec. 23, it was announced that the firefighter, who had initially reportedly tested positive, had re-tested as negative. All staff members were released from quarantine.)
But Davidson described the firefighter who had initially tested positive as being “very reluctant to share that because he didn’t think he had enough sick leave in the bank.”
In conclusion to his comments at the hearing, Davidson reiterated that the ultimate goal of filing the grievance was to ensure that better policies were instituted at VIFR.
“If something good can come out of this, if there is a point where we can get to a place where it is a safer environment, that’s a win for everybody,” he said.
Documentation, obtained by The Beachcomber in its coverage of the grievance, shows that the Fire District has recently researched what other fire districts have done in terms of COVID-related leave policies.
An undated spreadsheet, compiled by a district employee, details the leave policies in place at nearby districts. According to the spreadsheet, several districts, including those in Tukwila, Bellevue, Kirkland and Enumclaw offer paid administrative leave for quarantined employees.
Other districts make distinctions in pay policy for quarantined time between employees who had confirmed occupational exposure to COVID-19 and those who were exposed elsewhere, with those exposed on the job receiving administrative leave.
Redmond, East Side Fire & Rescue, Mountain View Fire & Rescue, Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority, Snoqualmie Fire Department all participate in programs that reimburse districts for pay to those who must quarantine. These programs included FEMA, PHEL (a public health emergency leave program), and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
At King County Fire District No. 2, firefighters in quarantine circumstances are initially charged sick hours, but then reimbursed for the hours used. Bremerton Fire District’s uniformed employees have been given 80 hours of COVID leave.