Fire District Needs to Bargain with Union | Update

Firefighters shouldn’t have to worry if they have any sick time left if they are exposed to COVID-19.

  • Wednesday, December 23, 2020 4:40pm
  • Opinion

This year, Vashon Fire & Rescue has served its highest purpose in many ways, but perhaps most notably in its activation and administration of Vashon’s Emergency Operations Center.

Under Chief Charlie Krimmert’s direction, the EOC and MRC have contributed immeasurably to keeping our island informed and safe during the pandemic. A direct result is that Vashon still has one of the lowest rates of infection in all of King County.

Krimmert, during his tenure, has also done much to get the district’s financial house in order, and for that, he deserves the community’s gratitude.

But still, we are concerned by something now happening at VIFR.

An article in this week’s Beachcomber details a grievance filed by members of the firefighter’s union Local 4189, charging unfair pay practices for firefighters asked to quarantine in September because of on-the-job exposures to COVID-19.

Disturbingly, the grievance also charges that the district’s pay policies disincentives firefighters to report potential exposures to COVID.

After failed talks, the grievance was met with an eight-page refusal by Fire Chief Charlie Krimmert and is now in the hands of elected VIFR commissioners. At press time, it is not certain what the commissioners’ response will be.

In the meantime, issues regarding COVID-19 cropped up again in the district last week, with another firefighter initially testing positive, then negative. In the interim between the tests, that firefighter and several others quarantined because of on-the-job exposure.

While this most recent case is not part of the grievance now being considered, the same issues described in it will once again come into play with this latest case.

Will these selfless public servants and high-risk heroes really be asked to use up their sick pay or vacation time during COVID quarantines, including those resulting from on-the-job exposure?

It’s difficult to understand why the union and the district haven’t negotiated a special new bargaining agreement dealing with the pay issues surrounding COVID-19. The present bargaining agreement between VIFR and the union, covering 2018 through 2020, couldn’t possibly have anticipated all the HR issues wreaked by the pandemic.

In his lengthy refusal of the grievance, Krimmert laid the blame solely on the union for not establishing new pay policies related to COVID.

But we believe it was also Krimmert’s job, as well as the responsibility of elected fire commissioners, to make sure that such an agreement was reached.

Krimmert is the well-paid chief of the department, in charge of all aspects of its administration. In contrast, the leadership positions in the local union are volunteer positions, with small stipends, and carried out by full-time firefighters who are quite busy with other life-saving work. Even if the union dropped the ball, the administration should have picked it up.

Commissioners are charged with oversight of Krimmert’s administration. They should have tasked him with making sure that employment issues such as the ones the district is now facing didn’t happen.

By way of comparison, it’s hard to imagine that Vashon Island School District’s superintendent would ever allow his teacher and support personnel union members to work for 10 months without signing a bargaining agreement specific to COVID-19 concerns. Nor would the current school board conceivably allow that to happen. To do so would put the district and public funds at risk.

But one needn’t look to a comparison with the school district, because ten months into the pandemic, plenty of other nearby fire districts have put COVID-specific pay policies into place.

No matter how this grievance is resolved, follow-up should be the highest priority for VIFR. A good first step was revealed in documents requested for our story — VIFR is now reaching out to research how other districts are dealing with this issue.

One untold story in The Beachcomber — due to the mad rush of events and short staffing at the paper — is that several members of Vashon’s current firefighting force have answered a call to serve at the King County Federal Way COVID testing facility, where positivity rates are high and growing. Gowned, gloved, face-shielded and masked, their task is to swab the noses of those being tested.

While career firefighters receive pay for this dangerous work (which is reimbursed to the district by the county), they are also doing it from a sense of selflessness and deep community service that is the hallmark of their profession.

When we need them, they are always there.

VIFR needs to reach an agreement with its union that fully takes into account the increasingly high-risk nature of firefighters’ work, and compensates them fairly if they must quarantine after COVID exposure. Any extra costs of this could never outweigh the benefits. And in the teeth of a raging pandemic, firefighters shouldn’t have to worry about whether they have any sick time left if they are exposed to COVID-19.

We believe our community would support this use of their tax dollars.

Update, Dec. 23: This version of this editorial differs slightly from the version that appeared in the print edition of Dec. 24 issue. The original editorial referenced the Emergency Operation’s Center reporting that a firefighter had recently tested positive for COVID-19. Subsequently, after the paper went to press, the firefighter re-tested negative.

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