Last month, Vashon’s local firefighter’s union filed a grievance against the Vashon Island Fire District’s administration, charging unfair pay practices during an incidence of COVID-19 exposure by VIFR firefighters.
News of the grievance came in the midst of a newly reported case of COVID-19 by a firefighter at VIFR and the subsequent quarantine of four additional staff members who were exposed to the infected person. On Dec. 23, it was announced that the firefighter who reportedly tested positive had re-tested negative and all staff members had been released from quarantine.
The grievance, filed with VIFR on Nov. 5, concerns an earlier 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 states 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, were violations of four 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.
These articles cover stipulations that any changes to wages, hours and conditions must be bargained with representatives of the union; that the district has an obligation to provide full-time work to union members; that the district must adhere to all applicable laws related to safety; and that employees must not be disciplined, through docking of pay, without just cause.
The grievance 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 grievance 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.
Additionally, it also asked the administration to engage in negotiating new policies due to changes to the work environment due to conditions of the pandemic — policies not yet in place at VIFR, 10 months into the coronavirus pandemic.
Fire Chief Charlie Krimmert announced that the grievance was filed at the Nov. 25 Commissioners meeting of VIFR, but it was not discussed by the commissioners during that Zoom meeting, nor has it been subsequently discussed in any other public meeting.
The grievance, as well as Krimmert’s denial of it dated Dec. 3, was obtained by The Beachcomber last week, along with related documents and correspondence.
This documentation included an undated spreadsheet compiled by a district employee that chronicled research into how other nearby fire districts are paying firefighters and employees when they are out on COVID quarantine.
According to the document, 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.
In his eight-page long denial of the grievance, Chief Krimmert said that 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.
He also said the three quarantines cited in the grievance were only necessitated by the fact that the firefighters could not confirm that they had worn masks at all times— a requirement at the district — when around their infected co-worker.
Krimmert said he had reached out to union leadership to discuss the issue prior to the grievance being filed, but talks and communications between his administration and the local had failed to resolve the issue.
“With no agreed-upon new approach in the matter in place and in order to address payroll, the Administration took a compromise position,” Krimmert wrote, adding that he had sent an email on Oct. 6 advising the union that he intended to retroactively amend its payroll processing pursuant to further bargaining between the two organizations.
Sill, Krimmert said, the impasse continued both before and after he received the grievance on Nov. 5.
More than three additional pages of Krimmert’s refusal to the grievance specifically rebut the violations of the firefighter’s collective bargaining agreement charged in the grievance.
As a result of Krimmert’s denial of the grievance, the matter is now in the hands of the board of commissioners. In a phone call with The Beachcomber, Candy McCollough, the chair of the commissioners, said that she could not comment on personnel matters but detailed the next steps in the process.
The commissioners, she said, will now consult with the district’s legal counsel, and hold a hearing with the union to decide their response to the grievance.
McCollough said that she anticipates the hearing will be held before the end of the year.
Chief Krimmert, reached by phone, also said he had no additional statement on the grievance as it was still an active matter.
Ben Davidson, President-Elect of the firefighter’s union, also declined to comment further for this article, except to say that he looked forward to the resolution of the matter.
Update and correction, Dec. 23
After the Dec. 24 issue of The Beachcomber went to press, we received new information about COVID quarantines by VIFR firefighters described in our print edition version of this article, in the second paragraph, as follows:
“News of the grievance comes in the midst of a newly reported case of COVID-19 by a firefighter at VIFR and the subsequent quarantine of five additional staff members who were exposed to the infected person (see EOC Report).”
Correction: The article erred in the number of additional staff members exposed — there were four additional firefighters affected. We regret the error.
Update: On Dec. 23, Fire Chief Charlie Krimmert said that subsequent testing revealed that the firefighter who was thought to have COVID has subsequently tested negative, as have his family members. Both he and other firefighters exposed to him whole crew (five in total) have been released from quarantine.
The online article reflects this correction and update.