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Springfield Firefighters Rally For COVID Merit Pay

Paul Tuthill
Springfield firefighters rally in front of City Hall to demand merit pay for working during the pandemic.

Mayor Sarno said union leadership are "political pawns."

There is a dispute in Springfield, Massachusetts over the timeliness and fairness of pandemic premium pay for essential municipal workers.

About 100 Springfield firefighters rallied on the steps in front of City Hall Tuesday to protest a delay in receiving COVID-19 merit pay and conditions they said the administration of Mayor Domenic Sarno has proposed at the bargaining table that would reduce the maximum $5,000 benefit for some of the first responders.

“There is no equity in these guidelines,” said Chad Jacobs, the president of Local 648 of the International Association of Firefighters.

He complained that non-union city workers and supervisors received the premium pay starting about a month ago while the first responders have been kept in limbo.

“The scales are so lopsided and slanted where we have no choice because we as essential personnel go to work every day no matter what,” said Jacobs. “City Hall and the rest of municipal buildings were closed for 4-5 months.”

He said the city has proposed conditions that could cut the bonus by up to 20 percent for firefighters who were off the job for health reasons other than COVID.

“It’s not about the money at this point, it’s about the mutual respect,” Jacobs said.

The merit pay, which is coming out of the city’s share of the federal American Rescue Plan Act, is intended for city employees who went “above and beyond” their normal duties during the pandemic, according to a statement from the administration.

At the discretion of Mayor Sarno and his department heads, hundreds of non-union employees received bonuses last month totaling almost $1 million. By law, all compensation for union members must be collectively bargained.

According to the mayor’s office, two unions have accepted the city’s merit pay offer -- the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, representing parks, public works and police garage foremen, and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1459 which represents a number of DPW employees including equipment operators, trash and recycling truck drivers, and laborers.

On the eve of Tuesday’s rally, Sarno, in a statement defended the merit pay process. Noting that several City Councilors planned to participate, he said he was disappointed the firefighters’ union leadership was letting itself be used as a “political pawn” and threatened to “move on” from negotiating with the union.

Jacobs said the union is “insulted” by the mayor’s comments.

“I’m not a politician,” Jacobs said. “We just want to get our point across.”

City Councilor Justin Hurst said people who put their lives on the line for the city should not be threatened in such a way.

“ And the idea that anyone would even think twice about not giving these individuals what it is that they deserve in merit pay is shameful,” Hurst said.

Hurst said other unions may have been intimidated by Sarno’s comments and chose not to show up at the protest.

Other City Councilors taking part in the protest were Victor Davila, Kateri Walsh, and Trayce Whitfield.

State Senator Adam Gomez, a former City Councilor, also spoke at the rally.

City Council President Marcus Williams and five other Councilors issued a joint statement Tuesday afternoon that was critical of their colleagues who attended the rally. City Councilor Mike Fenton said the collective bargaining process needs to be held sacred.

“I have every reason to believe that the collective bargaining units in the city will receive appropriate merit pay,” Fenton told WAMC adding, “That does not necessitate public statements from the legislative body that oversees these contracts that those payments be made immediately and with haste.”

Two officials from the Western Massachusetts Labor Federation were also present in the crowd at City Hall.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.