MERIDEN — Staffing shortages at the city’s emergency dispatch center haven’t jeopardized the safety of residents or first responders, City Manager Tim Coon said this week.
Coon responded to a statement issued by the dispatchers union this week criticizing the city for a lack of staffing by detailing ways in which the city has sought to remedy the shortages in recent months.
The emergency dispatch center, which is budgeted for 14 dispatchers, currently has eight dispatchers available to work shifts and two part-time dispatchers “available to alleviate some of the shortages,’ Coon wrote in an email. There are also two dispatchers already hired who will become full-time after completing training, and the city plans to offer positions to four more individuals soon pending background investigation results, Coon added.
Earlier this year, the city developed a contingency plan in which trained city police officers and firefighters would fill dispatch shifts if a dispatcher became infected with COVID-19. The city also offered that plan to the union as a way to reduce the amount of overtime dispatchers are having to work due to the shortages. The union’s statement said dispatchers are working 72 to 88 hours per week.
The union, however, rejected the city’s offer to lighten the load on dispatchers, according to Coon.
“These plans were also offered to alleviate staffing shortages, until new hires were fully trained but the Union rebuffed the implementation of that plan,” his email said. “The City and the Union are in agreement that staffing shortages need to be resolved. However, it is difficult to rectify a situation whereby the Union, when presented with a solution that will alleviate that issue for the short term, rejects it…because that solution takes overtime away from Union members!”
Larry Dorman, public affairs coordinator for AFSCME Council 4, called the city manager's characterization “inaccurate and misleading.”
“We have tried repeatedly to engage management in fixing the problem, and we have tried to be part of the solution. It's insulting to say we're more interested in protecting overtime when the city dropped the ball on a memorandum of understanding about cross training,” Dorman said.
"This isn't about overtime. It's about public safety. Our members are interested in protecting the public, and protecting the police and firefighters. That's best done with proper staffing and adequately rested dispatchers. The bottom line is that dedicated Meriden dispatchers continue to work 70- and 80-plus hour work weeks with no letup in sight,” he said.
Several months ago, Coon and other city staff met with union leadership to explore solutions for recruitment and retention of dispatchers. The city, Coon said, has struggled with hiring and retaining dispatchers for some time because the city pays a relatively low salary and does not offer a pension, unlike other towns. The union and city earlier this year finalized a new three-year labor contract that includes annual general wage increases of 2 percent. While the increases helped Meriden move more in line with what other municipalities pay, the city’s dispatcher pay still ranks in the bottom third among Connecticut municipalities.
Coon’s discussion with the union earlier this year, he said, “led to at least 4 separate mechanisms for reducing staffing shortages that were implemented. We are currently seeing the flowering of that result. In addition to those ideas, just prior to and since that meeting, the City has either hired, or offered positions to 9 persons for dispatcher positions.”
After previously working with the city to address the staffing shortages, the union put out the press release this week blasting the city about one week after filing a labor complaint against the city.
The “municipal prohibited practice” complaint alleges the city retaliated against Elizabeth Marotti, who recently became union president, by issuing her a written reprimand “without cause” a couple of weeks after Marotti filed a grievance to “stand up for her fellow staff.” The complaint, filed June 23, doesn’t specify what Marotti’s complaint was regarding.
“The Director of Emergency Communications [Doree Price] is not only failing to advocate for the staff, but she’s pouring gasoline on the fire by ignoring all reasonable requests for time off and targeting union members for speaking up. The work environment is toxic,” said Charles Paris, the staff representative who advocates on behalf of the union, Local 1303-405 of AFSCME Council 4.
Price didn’t return requests for comment this week. Coon said he couldn’t comment on “on-going discipline procedures.”