Waterford to hire 2 full-time firefighters as labor issues heat up

Waterford — The town plans to boost its staff of full-time firefighters from nine to 11 to bolster overnight and weekend coverage, a move that comes as Waterford and several other area towns are confronting yearslong concerns over noncompliance with federal labor law while grappling with higher emergency call volumes and smaller pools of trained volunteers.

Waterford First Selectman Dan Steward said the town would dip into fire services' roughly $600,000 annual budget for part-time firefighters to fund the additional full-timers, whose combined salaries and benefits could approach $200,000. Town records obtained by The Day show almost three dozen part-time firefighters — many of whom also serve as volunteers at the town's five private volunteer firehouses, including multiple officers and chiefs — earned a combined total of almost $420,000 in 2018.

"We're looking to get more coverage out there, people who are readily available and show up to go on calls. Sometimes part-timers aren't available," Steward said. "We believe we're doing what's right for the public."

The job posting comes as Preston and Montville have considered hiring more full-time firefighters in the wake of higher call volumes and dwindling volunteer numbers.

Keith Truex, chief of the Chesterfield volunteer fire company in Montville, noted in a recent interview that the hundreds of hours of training and expenses involved in volunteering make recruitment challenging.

"People are also busier nowadays. From when they get up to bedtime, a lot of people are just constantly on the go," he said, adding that Montville's four firehouses and town officials were working on recruitment efforts to avoid potentially heavy budget increases for paid staff.

The town of Bozrah in March reached a hiring agreement to supplement a formerly all-volunteer department with paid firefighters, and earlier this year East Lyme officials were negotiating with the East Lyme Ambulance Association to hire two full-timers to cover overnight shifts.

Waterford Town Attorney Rob Avena said with two-thirds of emergency calls being "ambulance related," the nonprofit Waterford Ambulance Service — staffed by a mix of volunteers and town-paid part- and full-time firefighters — may "look at taking on their own staffing ... to begin to offset some of the emergency services that our full-timers do."

"We don't get a lot of fire calls, but EMS calls are out of sight," Steward said, noting the town ran 3,000 ambulance calls last year, almost 800 to area nursing homes.

'Very challenging' labor conundrum

Talk of beefing up career firefighter rosters in multiple towns has picked up steam amid efforts to restructure long-standing practices that could leave the door open for rampant violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The 1938 federal labor law, which bars town employees from performing "volunteer services for the same entity by which they are employed," shields workers from missing out on compensation.

But several towns for decades have employed part-time firefighters who also are volunteers conducting the same, or similar, services at private, independent volunteer firehouses. Whether the private firehouses count as separate entities or municipal employers remains a matter of debate among attorneys, town officials and firefighters.

"I could have two attorneys in the room and they'd have two different opinions. Four attorneys, four opinions," Steward said. "It's very challenging."

The U.S. Department of Labor has said "even when there is no evidence of coercion ... allowing paid employees of a nonprofit organization to perform the same type of services for their employer on an uncompensated, volunteer basis would in effect allow employees to waive their rights to compensation under the FLSA."

Because the law bars employees from waiving their rights to compensation, towns theoretically could be on the hook for payment to firefighters for untold volunteer hours.

This past Wednesday night, the Waterford Board of Fire Chiefs held a special meeting, in executive session, to "discuss strategy and/or negotiations concerning pending claims and/or litigation related to wage and hour issues and/or attorney-client privileged communications related to the same."

The Day on Friday filed a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of any claim or litigation related to wage and hour issues filed with the town.

With similar discussions on the well-known FLSA issue over the last few months in Salem, Montville and Bozrah, Avena on Friday said, "We're beginning to realize that the model of trying to both volunteer and be a part-timer is not one that we think should be followed."

Steward and Avena on Friday said the town would work to resolve the issue in the coming weeks but did not state a firm timetable for the policy shift.

"We appreciate everybody for what they're doing," Avena said, describing volunteers' and paid firefighters' dedication as impressive and admirable. "But we can't continue a model that doesn't meet every standard. We have to obligate ourselves to respect the state statutes and federal law. We can't overlook you even though we know in your heart of hearts, you want to do your job."

The Day has obtained a letter recently issued to firefighters laying out instructions to paid part-timers, informing them that if they want to continue serving as town employees, they must elect to do so by June 14, 2019, while understanding they are "no longer eligible to volunteer such services."

According to the letter, issued by Director of Fire Services Bruce Miller, part-timers who do not respond by June 14 will be ineligible for any paid shifts but may, in the future, apply for part-time employment with the town if positions are posted.  

Chief Todd Branche of Waterford's Cohanzie Fire Company on Friday declined to comment on the past week's Board of Chiefs meeting. But he said if the town were to ask volunteers and part-timers to decide to pick one or the other, it potentially could lead to some experienced firefighters not volunteering as many hours and could deal "a significant blow to an already fragile volunteer system."

Last month, Montville attorneys Halloran & Sage — after telling firefighters to pick just one category, part-timer or volunteer — said that firefighters could volunteer at one firehouse and work paid part-time shifts at another.

Multiple Montville firefighters said they weren't interested in volunteering in one firehouse while covering part-time shifts in another, and Avena said such a workaround wouldn't be manageable in Waterford.

"The pure and simple answer is that if you volunteer in House A and are paid part-time in House B, I guess that's OK, but it's more difficult to monitor and manage the individuals we have to work with," Steward said.

Meanwhile, Representative Town Meeting members on the Public Protection and Safety Standing Committee are conducting an ongoing review of fire services. The committee recently called for the creation of a town fire department, under which its five volunteer companies would operate, in part to establish clearer qualifications and guidelines across the firehouses.

RTM member Susan Driscoll said in an interview that the town's fire services issues could not be resolved solely through an ordinance, and she urged all sides to sit down and work together.

"The focus should be on public safety, not 'he said, she said,'" Driscoll said. "If the end result is we have standard operating procedures and everybody follows them, I'm OK with that."

b.kail@theday.com

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