An impasse in contract negotiations between the Kern County Firefighters Union and county officials could soon see a resolution.
County Chief Human Resources Officer Devin Brown said a mediation meeting — expected to be the last chance for a deal to be struck — has been scheduled for Oct. 25. If the two parties come to an agreement over a new contract, it would be the first since the previous contract ended in 2017.
There has been little movement since the Board of Supervisors declared an impasse in negotiations nearly six months ago after nearly two years of discussions.
“This is the final opportunity to come forward with something that’s tangible,” union President Dave Nelson said about the meeting. “We’re always hopeful that an agreement can be reached.”
A fact-finding panel submitted a report last week recommending the county adopt a proposal to shorten firefighter work periods from 28 days to 18 as well as implement 3 percent equity raises in 2020 and 2021.
In addition, the panel recommends the county implement a 5 percent pay increase for members that have EMT certification.
As Brown said fire employees are required to have this certification, under this proposal they would receive that increase as well as the equity raises, totaling 11 percent in pay increases over two years.
“While I am recommending several county proposals which will reduce the take home pay of the unit, I am also recommending increases that should come close to making up for the reduction in overtime income,” said panel chair David Weinberg. “If the county were solely to implement their proposals without any increases, the actual income of the unit members would fall far behind any other jurisdiction.”
The panel recommended that the county adopt a contract agreement that would last through June 30, 2021.
The county is looking to cut about $3.4 million in overtime pay, which ballooned to almost $24 million last year, to help reduce a nearly $9 million deficit in the fire fund projected for next fiscal year.
Union officials say any cuts in overtime should be counteracted with base pay increases for employees, who haven’t seen significant raises since 2008. However, county officials have said doing that would wipe out any savings from cutting overtime.
According to union data, Kern County firefighters are paid more than 20 percent lower than firefighters in comparable counties.
Attorney Howard Liberman with Mastagni Holstedt, A.P.C., who is representing the firefighters union in the negotiations, acknowledged the panel’s recommendations in a statement.
“Adoption of the factfinders’ recommendations will give the county the overtime reform it has sought while giving our members a much-needed compensation increase…which will be offset to a great extent by the overtime savings predicted by the county.”
Brown, who served on the panel, submitted a dissenting opinion of the report, saying that he disagrees with the some of the proposals recommended by Weinberg.
“There are a couple things we agree with and other things we don’t,” he said. “We don’t concur with the proposal for salary increases because they would worsen the fire fund deficit.”