Austin Firefighters Association and city leaders end labor talks

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by ASHLEY GOUDEAU / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT McKENNEY

Bio | Email | Follow: @AshleyG_KVUE

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Posted on July 19, 2013 at 7:19 PM

AUSTIN, Texas -- The Austin Firefighters Association (AFA) represents more than 90 percent of the city's firefighters. In March, the AFA and City of Austin leaders started contract negotiations. A process that the two regularly do at the end of the AFA's four-year contracts.

Thursday night, those talks were officially finished.

"Well we're at an impasse," said AFA President Chief Bob Nicks. "I mean we negotiate in good faith and at a certain point if one side decides to stop, the negotiations break down."

In this case, the side that decided to "stop" was the city.

"Both sides I think bargained pretty hard for four months, which is double the amount of time mandated by law," said City of Austin Chief Labor Relations Officer Devan Desai. 

Desai said the groups were split on two issues. The first, a more lenient drug policy.

"The Association's proposal was that if you test positive on a random drug test the very first time the chief does not have any authority to terminate you regardless of the number of drugs in your system or the amount of drugs in your system. And that's just something the city couldn't live with," Desai explained.

Currently, Austin Fire Department conducts random illegal drug testing. If a firefighter tests positive, Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr has the authority to fire that firefighter or discipline them in another manner. In the last three years that the department has been testing, two firefighters tested positive for illegal drugs.

The AFA proposed the city conduct more strenuous, random testing.

"We basically said let's detect alcohol, which you don't have in the policy now. Let's detect more drugs," said Nicks.

Under the AFA proposal, the first time a firefighter tests positive, he or she would be suspended for 90-days and have to pay for their own rehabilitation, but they would keep their job.

"If you pay for your treatment, if you can prove you are sober...why shouldn't you have that second chance," argued Nicks.

But for the AFA, drug testing wasn't the deal breaker.

"We didn't go to impasse on drug testing," said Nicks.

He said it was the hiring process and Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald's demands.

"McDonald made an ultimatum 'you sign this hiring article that gives me the ability to do whatever I want or you don't get a contract.' It's just that simple," said Nicks. 

KVUE News reached out to the city for comment from McDonald. We were told he was not in the office and that Desai would speak on the city's behalf.

As of now, the contract between the AFA and the city requires firefighters are hired based on scores. Twenty percent of that score comes from a written or cognitive exam. The other 80 percent is based on an oral exam.

The contract expires on September 30th. When it does, the city will likely have to go back to the requirements established in the civil services hiring process which bases a candidate's score 100 percent on a written test.

Nicks says statistically, minorities perform poorly on the written tests and going back to that procedure would hurt the diversity of the department.

City officials say they just want leeway.

"What we wanted to do was to retain the ability to do what we do with police officers which is have the ability to come up with different test throughout these next four years if we so chose to do so," said Desai. 

If the contract expires, the firefighters also won't get automatic raises as laid out in the agreement. Nicks says fighting for the hiring process means more to the AFA members than the money.

"McDonald took the untenable position, the unreasonable position, demanding that we scuttle all of that and we go to what he says. And the firefighters aren't going to do it. The firefighters will vote down a pay raise to maintain standards for themselves and the citizens of Austin," Nicks said.

Nicks also pointed out that this is the second time the city and AFA have disagreed on the hiring process. The last time they had a contract dispute was in 2008 and firefighters turned down a raise to have a hand in the process.

The city's law department is looking into what can be done about the hiring process once the contract expires and how this change could effect the current pool of candidates going through the hiring process now.

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