A pledge by New Orleans firefighters to refuse to work voluntary overtime to protest the Fire Department’s staffing levels and other grievances continued roiling city government Tuesday, with the department canceling all vacation and annual leave and Mayor LaToya Cantrell saying the city would ensure there is adequate staffing as the Carnival season ramps up.
Fire Superintendent Tim McConnell issued a directive canceling firefighters’ vacation and annual leave until further notice, saying it was necessary to protect the city in view of the firefighters union’s rejection of voluntary overtime.
McConnell’s directive, which was provided to media outlets by the firefighters’ union, was apparently issued late Monday, shortly after a news conference in which he pledged to do whatever was necessary to keep the city safe.
The directive laid out a process by which the city’s 480 or so firefighters could preserve their vacations if they can prove they had already spent money on previously scheduled out-of-town trips. But the directive made clear that the NOFD would handle requests for such exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
McConnell’s directive also said there would be a process by which firefighters could be forced to work overtime hours, a situation typically reserved for emergencies.
The firefighters union issued a stern rebuke in a statement Tuesday, saying McConnell’s move either was simply “cruel and vindictive” or else proved that concerns about the department’s staffing levels were well-founded.
McConnell’s directive doesn’t specify a reason for the possibility of forced overtime beyond the firefighters’ boycott threat, which the union said in no way resembles an emergency like a natural disaster.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Cantrell’s administration said forcing firefighters to work overtime won’t be necessary as long as they keep showing up for regularly scheduled shifts, which the union’s members have promised to do.
But the administration said “it would be irresponsible for the city not to be prepared” by taking steps to ensure firefighters’ availability as the Carnival season reaches its climax on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 25.
“The cancellation of vacation is a temporary directive,” Cantrell’s statement said, calling firefighters the city’s most dedicated workers. “It will be rescinded as staffing increases or if firefighters agree to work voluntary overtime shifts.”
Union President Aaron Mischler said his group’s attorney planned to seek a court injunction to prevent McConnell from enforcing his directive.
The firefighters announced Monday they would no longer work voluntary overtime and other unscheduled hours beyond their regular shifts, stepping up a fight with the administration over a host of labor issues.
The firefighters said they had been volunteering to work more than 90-hour weeks in some cases to help the city cope as the NOFD’s ranks thinned by 25% over the last decade.
McConnell agreed his department’s staffing is lower than ideal — about 60 firefighters short of its authorized strength. But he said that two classes of recruits now in training should help boost the numbers. And, while he acknowledged that calls for service of various types have increased, he said structure fires have fallen by more than 50%.
Mischler said the long work weeks put firefighters in danger by mentally and physically taxing them to the extreme.
Depending on how entrenched the dispute becomes, it could create headaches for the city with Mardi Gras parades rolling and springtime festivals looming.
Firefighters working voluntary overtime details help erect and take down barricades for parades. Organizers of events like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival are also required to hire firefighters for food vendors to be able to cook food on site.
With firefighters declining to work those details, the city’s best option is to pull on-duty personnel from neighborhood stations. But that reduces the number of firefighters available to respond to emergencies elsewhere.
Union officials said firefighters do not plan to stop showing up for their regularly scheduled shifts despite their disgust with the vacation leave cancellation. Nonetheless, during past labor disputes, firefighters have staged “sickouts” where they called in sick en masse. In one case, about 75% of the NOFD called in sick on a single day in 1999.
The most dramatic labor stoppage by New Orleans first responders was the 1979 police strike, which forced the city to cancel most of that year’s Mardi Gras parades.
The NOFD has mutual aid agreements in place by which surrounding communities’ departments can send firefighters into New Orleans to boost staffing. But that normally kicks in only when most of the city’s on-duty firefighters are dealing with unusual emergencies.
Robert Burkett, the president of the Jefferson Parish firefighters’ union, said his members wouldn’t make themselves available to boost the NOFD’s staffing to cover for firefighters declining voluntary overtime work. He said he suspects most, if not all, outside firefighters unions would have similar feelings, especially with many of their departments dealing with their own staffing issues.
“I believe the problems (New Orleans and its fire service) are experiencing can be resolved if cooler heads prevail,” Burkett said. “I would hope that they sit down and do that.”
The New Orleans union’s grievances go beyond the work load.
Firefighters also want to be paid overtime after exceeding 96 hours on a 14-day cycle, rather than after 212 hours on a 28-day cycle. Firefighters say the change would bring them more in line with the Police Department’s overtime policy.
Firefighters say the rates they are paid for off-duty details trail those given to the city’s other first-response agencies, and the union is demanding an hourly increase of $5 across all ranks.
Policies on promotions and pensions bother the union, too.
Union officials argue that the city can pick and choose whom it promotes within the NOFD rather than relying on a system primarily based on test scores.
Meanwhile, firefighters hired more recently are required to work 10 years longer to fully collect their pensions. The union wants the pension system to become uniform.
McConnell on Monday bristled at some of those complaints, saying it was Cantrell’s administration that in 2018 authorized a 10% raise for firefighters and other city employees. The city’s workforce had gone a decade without such a raise.
“Unfortunately … union leadership has forgotten,” McConnell said.