HAMMOND | The city’s firefighters have rejected a third — and Mayor Thomas M. McDermott Jr. assures final — contract offer.
On Thursday, McDermott declared negotiations at an “impasse,” as Hammond Firefighters Local 556 voted down the proposal 76-43. The sticking point remains the number of firefighters per shift stipulated under the contract.
It appeared as if union and city had agreed on 40 men per shift, but a small but apparently significant piece of language doomed the contract.
Capt. Edward Lomeli, Local 556 president, said the contract offer likely would have passed had the city not insisted on a “safety clause.” The clause allowed manpower to drop to 37 men per shift before overtime call outs would be needed, should any firefighters call in sick for their shift.
McDermott said he could not agree to a contract without the clause.
“They want me to make a bad financial deal,” he told The Times. “Hammond residents will suffer, and I won’t do that.”
Lomeli said the firefighters could not in good conscience sign the safety clause. He cited a study commissioned by the city that recommended 47 firefighters per shift and one the union had the Indiana Association of Firefighters conduct that put the number at 42 per shift.
Having supported McDermott in his backing of the Lake County option income tax, Lomeli said many of the firefighters feel betrayed by the city administration and the tenor of the contract negotiations. Firefighters eyed a portion of the tax, which is statutorily set aside for public safety uses.
“We had no opportunity to work with the administration to clean up the language,” Lomeli said.
In this latest contract offer, the city guaranteed to hire 18 additional firefighters and provide 5 percent raises over three years. The offer would have reduced the union allowance by $750 and took away their seniority days.
When the firefighters rejected the city’s initial contract offer, they lost $650,000 worth of financial incentives and vacation perks they enjoyed under the previous contact.
McDermott then announced the funds would be used to reinstate and man an aerial ladder truck to service, which had been taken off the street in 2011 for budgetary reasons.
The $650,000 also gave McDermott the money he needed to seemingly address manpower issues.
“We feel terrible. This is affecting our families,” Lomeli said, adding that Hammond firefighters have a good track record of attendance.
However, those firefighters who live in the city (about 30 percent) are in line for a financial boost. McDermott is seeking an increase in the annual bonus of $1,800 to $5,000 for firefighters who are Hammond residents.
Hammond firefighters are now faced with operating without a contract for 2014 and will be governed under the city’s employee handbook.
The Hammond City Council has introduced an ordinance that would amend the handbook, recognizing the special circumstances that firefighters, who work 24-hour shifts, pose as compared to regular employees.
Despite the rejection of the contract, Hammond is increasing manpower from 37 to 40 per shift, allowing ladder Truck 1 back in service.