Although the questions around staffing and overtime at Meriden’s emergency dispatch center are far from settled, City Manager Tim Coon says there’s one thing on which both the city and the union are in agreement: that staffing shortages need to be resolved.
Beyond that, though, the discussion descends into charges and countercharges.
The union says dispatchers are working 72 to 88 hours per week. "We have tried repeatedly to engage management in fixing the problem, and we have tried to be part of the solution,” said Larry Dorman, public affairs coordinator for AFSCME Council 4. “This isn't about overtime. It’s about public safety.”
Coon wrote in an email that the city has presented a solution that will alleviate that issue for the short term, but said the union rejects it “because that solution takes overtime away from union members!"
Meanwhile, John Q. Public just wants the situation resolved.
But it’s a can of worms, as anyone who hasn’t been following the situation closely might be shocked to learn. The emergency dispatch center, which is budgeted for 14 dispatchers, currently has only eight dispatchers available to work shifts and two part-time dispatchers “available to alleviate some of the shortages,” Coon wrote. 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.
This situation probably cannot be understood without acknowledging that the city's dispatcher pay ranks in the bottom third among Connecticut municipalities.
Adding to the complications, 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. All well and good — in an emergency — but the union can hardly be expected to be happy with a plan that brings in workers from outside their local.
To make matters even more fraught, the union has lodged a labor complaint against the city, alleging retaliation against the new union president, Elizabeth Marotti; and another union official has characterized the work environment at the dispatch center as “toxic.”
Coon held that the city offered plans to alleviate staffing shortages, but was rebuffed.
Complicated questions involving staffing in the public safety sector are not unique to Meriden, of course.
The Wallingford Fire Department has just created a new response model that changed the average staffing level and how firefighter/paramedics and emergency medical technicians are deployed on various days and shifts — because about 80 percent of call volume in Wallingford these days is medical.
And in Southington, overtime costs for firefighters continue to drop, due to a combination of additional manpower and organizational changes. Two years ago, overtime pay totaled more than $900,000. For the fiscal year that just ended, the department spent just over $500,000.
Meriden’s labor dispute in the dispatch center may be a tougher nut to crack, but we trust both sides will take it on for the greater good.
John Q. Public is counting on it.