WILMINGTON, DE — Josie Harris Robinson and her husband are both front-line shift workers in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She’s a nurse and her husband, Aaron Robinson, is a Wilmington firefighter. They both had to scramble, with just six days notice, to figure out a new way of life when a required shift change took effect for firefighters on July 1. City firefighters have transitioned–against their will after losing the latest legal battle in an appeal to the Delaware Public Employee Relations Board–to a 24/48 shift. The shift requires them to work 24 straight hours and then have 48 hours off. They used to have 72 hours off.
“I’m expected to be at work at 7 a.m. ready for duty, and when I have to worry about whether my husband’s actually getting off work on time or going to be ordered to work, or any variability, it makes it challenging for me to produce on my end and to keep my commitments as a nurse, and that’s unacceptable. I just can’t not show up for work…especially as a nurse. I’m expected to be there to take care of my patients,” Harris Robinson told WDEL. “It’s unacceptable for the city to expect us and our family to be at their back and call as they see fit.”
A recent weekend, Harris Robinson said she had to hire an overnight babysitter for their 8- and 12-year-old children, after her husband was ordered to work an additional 24 hours, after his initial 24-hour shift.
“In the midst of the pandemic, with our careers, most people aren’t so willing to take the chance to watch our children just because of the nature of our professions; we’re both considered high-risk professionals; we’re completely emerged in this pandemic,” she said.
She picked up the babysitter the night before while her husband was still at work, so she could leave for work at 5:30 a.m.
“My husband came home from work after working 48 hours, then had to drive the babysitter home, and then still try to function and take care of children after working 48 hours straight. So that presents safety issues across the board from being at work for 48 hours and being at home trying to care for children, independently, and be functional, so it was a big hardship,” she said. “Then out-of-pocket, we’re spending money on overnight sitters.”
Aideen Murphy also has a full-time job as a professor. Her husband, Jake Craig, has been a city firefighter for eight-and-a-half years. The couple has an 18-month-old son. She said the shift change is having a detrimental effect on her and her family’s well-being.
“Jake gets off shift, he’s tired. I think any of who have not worked a 24-hour shift don’t realize how draining it actually is, physically, emotionally–depending on what you’re actually exposed to,” she said. “He’s very tired that first 24 hours, so it’s very, very very difficult in the current climate…to maintain a healthy family life.”
She considered her and her family “lucky” that Jake hasn’t been ordered to work additional hours yet, but she knows some day he will.
“It has been a massive challenge, for me, but I know it’s been a massive challenge for all spouses who have full-time jobs because all of a sudden you’re having to adjust to this schedule that was basically not even finalized until seven days before it was put into effect,” she said.
She said the dollar is apparently more important than lives of people who risk their lives to save city residents.
“The lack of concern that this mayor and this fire chief have shown for their firefighters–the people who are going on shift to basically protect their city–it’s a slap in the face, it really is. Because every time my husband goes to work, I know he is going to risk his life for anybody in that city that he believes he is capable of saving in a fire situation,” Murphy said.
Local 1590 leader Joe Leonetti Jr. called the new shift change “exhausting.”
“I don’t think a month gives you enough time to have a fair assessment, but our guys are working around-the-clock because now that we’re being forced to work 48 hours a week, a lot of guys aren’t working the voluntary overtime.”
That’s leading to forced overtime.
“When we’re forced, we’re talking guys that are working their 24-hour shift, and then getting forced to work 24 more hours. A lot of guys are working 48 hours with only 24-hours off in-between, so it’s exhausting there. And it’s exhausting on the families; these guys have kids and wives, and commitments, so that all gets uprooted when you find out at 6 o’clock in the morning that you’re not allowed to go home that day, and then you’re waiting to see if you get to go home at 7 o’clock that night or do you have to stay until 7 o’clock the following day in the morning,” said Leonetti.
The shift change went into effect at the height of the summer vacation season and during month five of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve had a lot of guys off the COVID quarantine this month; the shift went into effect right at 4th of July weekend–that’s a tough weekend–it’s a holiday; you might have a couple more guys knock off sick, and a lot of guys aren’t going to voluntarily take overtime that week because they’re usually away with their families,” said Leonetti.
Wilmington Fire Chief Mike Donohue declined an interview request for this story. But when asked specifically about the effects the shift change could be having on firefighters and their families and what flexibility might be offered, he provided information that included an unusually high number of sick calls in the month of July. He said 52 firefighters called out sick since the new shift took effect on July 1 through July 28, compared to 31, for the entire month last year.
For the July 4, 2019, [holiday] seven firefighters called out sick, but for July 4, 2020, 17 called out sick, the city said.
“On top of that, other firefighters refused an overtime assignment or did not answer their phones when contacted to work overtime. If a firefighter calls out sick, and another firefighter then refuses an overtime assignment, then a firefighter who has already worked a shift is required to stay and work additional hours at one and a half times his/her normal pay rate,” said Chief Donohue in a written statement.
He said these “sickouts” are burdening firefighters’ colleagues and their families.
“[They] are actually placing an additional burden on their fellow union members by causing them to have to work additional hours,” he said.
Donohue also attributed some of the difficulty to the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to 19 firefighters being quarantined during various periods this month.
“However, had firefighters not called out sick in large numbers or refused overtime assignments, the effects of COVID-19 would not have been as cumbersome to deal with,” he said.
“When the city implemented this shift, they knew we were in the midst of the pandemic; they knew that people were going to get sick; they knew that there was the potential for that; they knew there was the potential for them to be quarantined. I don’t think it was a smart choice to transition to this shift in prime-time vacation season, in the midst of the pandemic, when we know that we could be potentially down firefighters,” said Harris Robinson.
She said, as PERB had suggested, a January 1, 2021, start for the new shift might have been more amenable.
“Maybe that would not have caused as much hardship,” she said. I think they jumped the gun on this…they gave us less than six days notice of what shift my husband was working…that gave me less than six days to adjust with my employer so we could accommodate child care. Even not in a pandemic, that would still be exceptionally challenging,” she said. “I work 12 hours, my husband works 24, you can’t just pull overnight day care out of no where.”
Harris Robinson and Murphy both said the shift is hard on the kids too.
“It’s heartbreaking to see when I hang up the phone after being told that Aaron’s going to stay at work, his eyes well up with tears, and he’s like ‘Oh, OK, I just wanted to watch that movie with dad this weekend?’ How do you explain to an 8-year-old that it’s all about money? he doesn’t understand that, and it’s not fair for them,” said Harris Robinson.
“This is about dads not making their son’s baseball games or not being able to be there for family occasions. We already sacrifice that time; we already miss Christmases; we already miss birthdays…now it’s like this city is just saying, ‘ah we’re just going to up that a little bit.’ It has an effect. It’s not just numbers on a chart…I don’t know how much more my family can give to this city,” Murphy told WDEL.
Additionally, the fire department currently has eight vacancies. City Code requires the fire department to maintain a “level of manpower” of no fewer than that number of firefighters included in the position allocation in the fiscal year’s budget. When levels dip blow 95 percent, as they are currently with eight vacancies, the department must hire.
“We will have to first schedule a fire training academy and hire from that process,” said John Rago, Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Communication for Mayor Mike Purzycki.
Rago said the timeline for that process is uncertain.
He also touted, that for the first time in years, rolling bypass, or the rotating closure of an engine company, to save money has not been used. Its usage was a major sticking point of negotiations between the union and the city. The union had wanted the controversial practice banned from usage, but the city refused an “ironclad guarantee” because of the mayor said it could lead to operational problems it can present under extenuating circumstances.
As contract battles waged in court, the city said the new shift would result in a major decrease in overtime.
“The city’s office of management and budget told the Public Employee Relations Board that overtime budget would decrease to $200,000 a year….I believe we spent over $200,000 already just this month in overtime,” said Leonetti. “And it’s not because guys are turning it down out of spitefulness, it’s because guys aren’t working it because they’re tired.”
“If we really want to talk dollars and cents, this shift does not make sense,” said Murphy.
The city of Wilmington failed to provide dollar figures for amounts spent on overtime in June of 2020 versus July of 2020 when the shift change went into effect. Rago noted the comparison isn’t “apples to apples” due to an 18 percent “raise” built into firefighters’ pay. That raise, firefighters have said, continuously, is just them being paid for working more hours. Despite a second request for the figures, they were still not provided.
So far, the city has spent more than $450,000 in its legal battle over contract negotiations with firefighters, according to documents obtained by WDEL. The firefighters’ union has spent about half that. But the battle is is going to get more expensive for both parties as firefighters appeal to the Delaware Court of Chancery.
“It’s far from over. The amount of money that’s going to go into this is unreal,” she said. “We’re spending so much money to fight something that’s not proven to save money either, so it just seems backwards,” said Harris Robinson.