Members of the Las Vegas Fire Department have combined forces and are in the process of forming a union, with their leader saying they want their pay on par with other departments.
Elauterio “Mike” Montao, interim president of the Las Vegas, New Mexico, Professional Firefighters Association Local 4625, said departments members started the unionizing process in November and hope to become recognized as the official union in the next couple of months.
He said the most immediate issue is a new state law in which fire departments statewide are now required to pay firefighters overtime, which has put many cities in a financial bind. In Las Vegas, the department is planning to put firefighters on eight-hour shifts to avoid having firefighters get overtime. The department has been on a 24-hour shift schedule.
Previously, firefighters in New Mexico would get paid overtime after working 212 hours in a 28-day period. That’s a system firefighters want to have, Montao said, and he expects the state Legislature, which started its month-long session Tuesday, will vote to return to the old system.
The eight-hour day is a burden on two firefighters who commute long distances to work, he said. And the change will mean fewer firefighters on duty — from five to four per shift, said Montao, a firefighter who has served with the department for two years.
“None of us like this,” he said, adding that the eight-hour shifts will mean a loss of pay for firefighters.
Montao has presented an agreement to the city, releasing it of the overtime compensation for more than 40 hours but he has yet to receive a response.
The department has 13 firefighters — all but one of whom are backing the formation of a union, Montao said. The association believes that the department’s one captain and two lieutenants should belong to the union, but Montao indicated that the city may have a different take with the argument that captains and lieutenants are supervisors. He said he doubts that captains and lieutenants would be defined as supervisors under the law.
Montao said firefighters want their pay to be as high as other departments. A couple of years ago, the Optic surveyed a number of similarly sized departments and found that Las Vegas’ had the lowest pay; Montao said the association has reached the same conclusion.
“We’re the lowest paid in the state,” he said.
He also said firefighters want better training.
Fire Chief Andrew Duran, in his first year as the department’s leader, said he would not comment until the union officially forms. He confirmed that the department would have reduced staffing for a while until the state changes the overtime law.
In a Jan. 9 memo to employees, Duran stated the city was forced to go to an eight-hour shift because of the budget impact of the new law, which he estimated at $18,000 a month.
Juan Montoya, executive director of the Public Employee Labor Relations Board, said the state will recognize a union if more than 50 percent of eligible employees sign cards in support of organizing and the governing body doesn’t challenge it. A governing body can require an election, and in that case, at least 40 percent of eligible members must show up to vote, Montoya said.
He said a majority of Las Vegas Fire Department employees have signed the cards. He said he’s never seen an instance in which employees rejected a union after a majority signed cards.
He said a court ruling requires a hearing to determine whether positions such as captains and lieutenants are supervisors. He said that to be a supervisor, one must supervise at least two employees most of the time.
Montoya said the city has a month to ask for an election.
memo from the fire chief
Las Vegas Fire Chief Andrew Duran issued a memo to firefighters on Jan. 9:
The Fair Labor Standards Act defines exemptions for firefighters because of their unique work schedule. We have discussed the issue regarding the new state law as it pertains to
“payment of wages; increasing the minimum wage.” As part of this act, Section D defines the 40-hour work week and overtime as being paid at one and one-half times the employees’ hourly rate. The exemption for firefighters was somehow excluded in the new state law; without this exemption, municipalities will face significant budget impacts. The impact to our budget is estimated to be $18,000 per month in overtime; this amount could increase with the need for added callback during emergencies.
In order to address this issue before it damages operations and threatens the public safety, we have no choice but to adjust the work schedule in a manner that will help address this problem. As per the attached general order, the fire department will operate on an eight-hour shift rotation, starting Jan. 19, 2007. It is our intention to revert back to the 24-hour schedule as soon as the new law is corrected to include the exemptions for firefighters as defined in the Fair Labor Standards Act