PARIS — The Teamsters Union has filed a complaint against the town of Paris with the Maine Labor Relations Board over scheduling issues for per diem firefighters as the town and union are in the middle of contract negotiations.
On Friday, June 9, Teamsters Local 340 Secretary-Treasurer Lorne Smith – who is also the bargaining agent for the town’s newest union – filed a prohibitive practice complaint with the Labor Relations Board. Smith informed Town Manager Vic Hodgkins of his plan in a Thursday, June 7 email after Smith said he received “multiple calls from firefighters in Paris.”
In the complaint, Smith wrote, “Town Manager Vic Hodgkins met with Captain Mark Blaquiere of Paris Fire on approximately June 7th and Stated [sic] that no firefighter was to get more than 53 hours in any one week. This order was a unilateral change in working conditions and was being bargained over at the time of the order.”
In his email response back to Smith, Hodgkins told him he had incorrect and misconstrued information.
“Clarification: There is NO … standing order of firefighters to NOT answer fire call[s] if they have 52 hours,” Hodgkins wrote.
Under federal labor laws, first responders are allowed to work up to 53 hours per week without any overtime, as long as they do not exceed 212 hours total in a 28-day cycle.
“They’re not breaking any law by working 53 … hours [a week] as long as they stay with 212 hours in the 28 days. … We’re not looking for overtime,” Smith said in a phone interview. “These guys are doing nothing wrong or nothing different than what they’ve done before. … The union’s position is they’re harassing these guys over the schedules.”
Over the winter, Selectboard Vice Chairman Scott Buffington began to refuse to sign off on payroll warrants because Blaquiere was consistently working more than 50 hours a week. He worried about fire calls coming when firefighters were already at their max for weekly hours.
Also when the town voted at a special town meeting in 2010 to go to a per diem firefighter model, Buffington said, the per diems were supposed to work less hours and pointed to a departmental policy that said so.
“The per diems were sold to the town to initially work a 32-hour work week. That was changed to 36 [hours] to ease the scheduling,” he said. “Recently it morphed into one firefighter working consistently 50 hours a week after the firefighter situation happened in Oxford.”
Buffington is referring to Blaquiere leading the charge late last year to oust then-Oxford Fire Chief Wayne Jones. Jones resigned in December 2016 after receiving a letter of no confidence from members of the department. According to his termination letter filed by Oxford Interim Town Manager Becky Lippincott, Blaquiere was fired for breaking into Jones’ office in November 2016.
Smith pointed the finger at Buffington regarding the current union woes.
“It was never an issue before until Mr. Scott Buffington. … For really no apparent reason he does not like the idea they’re getting 53 hours a week. … He’s running around as a selectman who’s on the negotiating team for the town so he’s supposed to be a little more subtle in what he does,” Smith said.
“He has refused to sign payroll warrants. That’s another thing – he’s discriminating,” Smith added.
“I am refusing to sign payroll warrants for what I feel is wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars,” Buffington said. “I do believe the town manager or any manager of any business should have the discretion to manage his budget, his taxpayers dollars, in the most effective manner.”
He noted he supports the Fire Department, as his father has been a member for more than 50 years, and actively recruits new members for its ranks. At the Monday, June 12 selectmen’s meeting, Buffington handed in five firefighter applications to Hodgkins as he has them available at his business.
Buffington does not agree with the approach the union has taken regarding the scheduling and complaint.
“I just think this is a bully tactic the union uses to threaten the town – to take them to court – to cost the taxpayers more money,” Buffington added.
Hodgkins said he expects a bill from Bernstein Shur Law Firm any day now for the contract negotiations that just began a few weeks ago.
“I expect in the near future to spend several thousand dollars to work out the contract,” he said, but declined to further comment “due to sensitivities of the situation and ongoing contract negotiations.”
Selectboard Chair Janet Jamison declined to comment as well.
Smith noted that attorneys are now involved with the complaint.
“This is not going to be a cheap round,” he said.
While there are no fines involved, lawyers fees can add up, Smith said. He added dealing with one of these complaints can cost upwards of $10,000.
The complaint will go to a hearing before the Labor Relations Board, where the union will seek a cease and desist order against the town to prevent officials from changing the firefighters’ schedules and to not discuss the issue further.
Also in a follow up June 8 email to Hodgkins, Smith said he thought that the per diem firefighters contract should go to mediation. On Tuesday, June 13, Smith said he had not decided if he would seek mediation for the contract yet and planned to call the town’s attorney one last time before making the decision.