On a daily basis, dozens of firefighters at Polk County Fire Rescue are being forced to work mandatory overtime.
As the firefighters finish their normal 24-hour shifts, 10 to 20 employees are finding out they need to work an additional 24 hours, or face disciplinary action.
According to Derek Walsh, the President of the Polk County Professional Firefighters Union, Polk County Fire Rescue is facing a major firefighter shortage. Walsh said the county has about 80 to 100 vacancies.
Walsh told 8 On Your Side that the union approached the county in 2015 with concerns about vacancies and the problem has grown worse over time. “We lost 437 people in the last five years, as of November. That’s almost the entire department,” Walsh said.
The county has implemented an accelerated paramedic program to entice more applicants. Walsh said that is not enough.
The union is currently engaged in ongoing negotiations with the county.
The county and the union have agreed on some of the necessities, according to Walsh, but they haven’t agreed on the big ticket items, such as a cost-of-living increase, better working conditions, and the union is asking for a step program to be reinstated.
The step program is basically like built-in raises. It is a salary structure followed by most fire departments, with standard progression rates established within a pay range for a job. Employees may progress from step to step on the basis of performance or other negotiated reasons.
Walsh said Polk County Fire Rescue’s step program has been frozen since 2009. The union has instead had to negotiate raises on an annual basis. Walsh said they are losing employees to other departments that have step plans.
“This helps retain employees that you paid to recruit. It gives them incentive to stay,” said Walsh.
The next meeting between the county and the union will be held Wednesday Feb. 27.
If an agreement is not reached, the union could declare an impasse for the first time in more than a decade. If an impasse is declared, a mediator would have to step in and take over negotiations.