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Emmaus Firefighters Try to Unionize

Borough officials argue the firefighters are volunteers, not employees, and should not be able to unionize. Both sides make their case Jan. 9 in Harrisburg.

Patch File photo
Patch File photo
By Jack Tobias

Firefighters in Emmaus are at the beginning stages of trying to unionize.

The borough, meanwhile, believes firefighters are volunteers—not borough employees—and thus should not be allowed to unionize.

Both sides will have a chance to present their arguments at a Jan. 9 hearing before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board in Harrisburg.

Lindsay Bracale, a press aide with the state Department of Labor & Industry, confirmed the date of the labor board hearing. It will begin at 10 a.m. in hearing room 3 in the North Office Building in the state capital.

A statewide group called the Pennsylvania Fire Fighters Association, which represents paid firefighters in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton among other municipalities, filed a petition Oct. 24 with the labor board, requesting permission to represent 27 Emmaus firefighters in collective bargaining with the borough.

In the petition, the association says it is seeking to represent "all full-time and regular part-time firefighters employed in the fire department, including deputy chief."

The association's petition does not cover "office clericals, guards and supervisors."

The petition includes the name of association president Art Martynuska and was submitted by Stephen C. Richman, an attorney with offices in center city Philadelphia, at 121 N. Cedar Crest Blvd. in South Whitehall, and in Haddonfield, N.J., and New York City.

Martynuska could not be reached for comment. Patch sent an email to Richman, who did not respond in time for this posting.

In Emmaus:

The borough already pays some salaries and benefits to fire department personnel. It also provides stipends to encourage volunteer participation. According to 2011 figures provided by the borough, Emmaus paid $423,411 for fire operations, plus $321,581 in salaries and benefits for a total contribution of $744,992. That came to 8.5 percent of the $8.68 million general fund budget.

Borough council has introduced a proposed ordinance that would apply to fire department operations.

The borough gets state aid for fire department operations in the form of a "foreign fire" tax. The word "foreign" refers to out-of-state companies that provide insurance to in-state properties.

The borough website says of fire operations: "The Fire Department’s staff is comprised of paid on-call volunteers who respond, on average, [to] 375-400 calls per year. Calls include fire protection, rescue/extrication and HAZMAT response, and are dispatched via Lehigh County’s 911 Communications Center." The website also says borough fire chief James Reiss, "a 31-year department veteran, ... oversees 42 volunteer firefighting professionals, comprised of duty crews, standby drivers and crews available 24/7, 365 days a year.

The fire fighters association, according to its website, represents more than 10,000 paid professional firefighters in Pennsylvania. It also represents EMTs and paramedics. The association is a member of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).

Patch posed questions to Emmaus borough manager Shane Pepe on the issue:

Q. What is the borough's position regarding the unionizing of firefighters? Is there one issue that stands out?

A. The Borough's position is that the firefighters in the Borough are meant to be volunteers.  They apparently feel that they are employees.  

One of the issues that stands out is the way that the firefighters are paid. Their position is that they are paid through payroll and therefore should be considered employees. The Borough's position has historically been that they receive their pay stipends through the payroll system and they receive W-2 forms to make life for the firefighter easier, so they don't have to pay taxes on a 1099 form at the end of the year.  It also helps the firefighter with items such as withholdings for child support, etc.  

There are other issues that stand out, however, this is an issue that will be decided by the Labor Relations Board.

Q. Can you confirm the amount that firefighters receive in the borough's annual budget? And how much of that is for stipends? Also, why did the stipends begin and what about the apparent effort to end the stipends?

A. $519,366 is their 2014 budget.... $182,000 is for stipends.

The stipend began several decades ago. The Borough never stated that we were eliminating the stipends.  Borough Council greatly reduced the amount we were paying in last year's budget, just like we cut several positions in the Ambulance Department, Police Department, and Public Works Department.  When they were making budget cuts, they made the cuts to this department as well.  

Part of the reason was because it was legal counsel's opinion that the way the department stipend was being paid did not meet Fair Labor Standard Act requirements.  It had been this way since the 1980s apparently.  The Borough Council felt that we should do things the legal and correct way, which prompted the beginning of the construction of the ordinance.

Q. What prompted the proposed borough ordinance that would apply to firefighters? How are firefighters classified under the proposed ordinance?

A. (Along with the above), there were several areas where Borough Council needed to clean up the current Borough ordinances for the fire department.  The Borough has always held the position that we have a volunteer fire department, which should be held as a separate entity from the Borough Government.  This is how the law works.  

The only professionally paid fire departments in the Lehigh Valley are Easton, Allentown, and Bethlehem City Fire Departments.  Every other department is considered a volunteer department.  

Many of the departments pay stipends to offset costs for the fire departments and provide for some type of incentive for the volunteers, as there is a great amount of training and work that goes into being a firefighter.  Council has always recognized this, as it's not as simple as just picking up a hose and spraying water at a fire.  Council felt that paying a stipend and continuing to pay a stipend is beneficial to the entire community, however, there was never an intention that the firefighters would be employees.

Council has worked with the leadership team of the Fire Department throughout the entire process.  Council was open throughout the process and did everything they possibly could to make sure that the fire department's voice was heard and addressed every single concern legally possible that was voiced by the fire department. The ordinance was formed so that there was very little impact on firefighters. They would still receive stipends and everything else they have ever had. The changes were procedural and structural in terms of how the department operated overall and better defined the department in its relationship with the Borough.  

The ordinance was written to be in line with the vast majority of every other volunteer fire department in Pennsylvania.  The ordinance included free accounting services by the Borough if the department chose.  It included almost every request by the fire department as well.  We spent approximately 9 months working on this ordinance with the department.

Q. What is the Emmaus Firemen's Relief Association and how much does it get each year?

A. The Emmaus Firemen's Relief Association is an organization created that consists of volunteers.  Each year, the Borough receives approximately $80,000 in Foreign Firefighter Tax State Aid from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Because it is our position that the Emmaus Fire Department is a volunteer fire department, we give the money to the Firemen's Relief Association every year.  They, in turn, do with it as they please.  

There are guidelines and rules that they must follow under the state laws, however, the money is usually spent on equipment for firefighters, additional vehicles, etc.  If the department were treated as a paid fire department, the Borough would keep the money and use it for the fire department under the same guidelines, only we would be making the decisions with the money rather than the Volunteer Relief Association.
Lets Get Real December 30, 2013 at 09:37 AM
This is absolutely ridiculous. There is no reason for borough residents to pay for union firefighters. We are not a big city and there are NOT daily fire calls. There is no reason for the current paid fire fighters and there is certainly no reason for a union. Why should tax dollars be paid for fire fighters to sit around.
careless fills December 30, 2013 at 10:02 AM
I'm not an expert on US or PA labour law, but the headline and the first paragraph of this article may be misleading. Is it really the volunteer firefighters who are trying to "unionize" or is an outside agitating union which is coming in and trying to "organize" the Emmaus firefighters. Has there even been an election that determines that this union speaks for the firefighters?
Colleen Krause Straw December 30, 2013 at 02:11 PM
Unions can disrupt any business and now they are working on our volunteer firemen! I think the unions are getting desperate with their loss of union dues and are now trying to engage more non union entities. Having been involved in this sort of thing back in the 80's it is not a win for either side if they unionize. Keep the unions out because we have a fabulous fire department without their meddling!!!
John Lebeduik December 30, 2013 at 09:09 PM
Let's face it! Know one cares about a fireman until they need one. I am a union fireman who lives in Emmaus and the board and people against this are like always only looking at dollar signs, not the safety , well being, and protection of life and property a well trained and organized paid fire dept delivers! You don't read of many total loses of life or homes in the 3 big cities because we put them out before they ever get out of hand! And when your in bed at night and these firemen are freezing or crawling through smoke and fire to find a young child or elderly person or even you ! You might think differently . These are good well trained individuals pay them for what they do and love and you as a community will be safer and add jobs to a struggling country.
Colleen Krause Straw December 30, 2013 at 11:09 PM
I have known a lot of fireman from Emmaus and they take their job as a volunteer fireman seriously. I don;' know all that is involved with the union organizing but if the firemen want to change to be paid they should approach it without the union. The unions only want their union dues and they are not always on the same age as the men they represent. Are the volunteer fireman willing to give up their regular job for this? Maybe or maybe not. I believe this issue should be looked at very closely and union representation is not always the answer.
Lets Get Real December 30, 2013 at 11:54 PM
John, I am very thankful for all fire fighters; both paid and volunteer. I am also very familiar with what fire fighters and their families deal with and go through, as my brothers and father are and were volunteer fire fighters. I still feel very strongly that volunteer fire fighters are the way to go for a borough that is 4 square miles and 4,000 homes. Lastly, thank you for your service and for putting your life in danger to help and save others. God bless.
Gerry Kranz December 31, 2013 at 07:07 AM
Colleen and Get Real: there is no need to kiss Johns butt with platitudes such as "Thank you for your service". As he stated, he is a paid professional, so his service is expected of him, or he would be fired. John, nice try with the scare tactics buddy, but that's a no go on your "Union Yes!" ad campaign. Volunteers are really well trained and are all that is necessary in our small communities. You are the kind of union blockhead who wants to "create jobs" on the backs of the taxpayers. Next thing we know, you will be trying to convince us that professional union members are required to sell people a bottle of wine ( or should that be "whine"?).
John Lebeduik December 31, 2013 at 07:46 PM
Hey Gerry it's not about the union it's about guys risking their life for you or you family. The fire mans union is only to help the guys be organized and get what they deserve, here's an idea just have a paid department. Forget the union these guy are serving their community pay them for it it will create jobs for them and the jobs they leave can be taken by some one else. So don't be an ass you have you beliefs but to me you just sound like another coward that run his mouth on the internet ! Have you served your country? Your community? I have done both and if you like to chat id be happy too! Or stop in the Emmaus fire dept and tell those guys their not worth a couple extra bucks in your taxes and they should just come cut you out of a car one night because you don't think they deserve to be paid! They should just be sitting around waiting to do it for free! May be you should go to work and tell the you want to volunteer to do whatever it is you do to make the world a better place no more pay !
Lets Get Real January 02, 2014 at 10:24 PM
Gerry, I don't see a problem thanking anyone who risks their life to help other; whether they are paid for it or not. It's scary being the family of fire fighters and not knowing the danger they're in while at a scene. Please don't be disrespectful. John, there is no reason for Emmaus to have paid fire fighters. We already pay a few and I don't see the need for that either. This is a small town and volunteers can come from their homes when a call comes in; there is no need for them to wait at the station for a call. I do however support that the Borough using tax dollars to pay volunteer fire fighters stipends for calls that they respond to.
Judy Johnson January 05, 2014 at 07:16 AM
I find it interesting that a "union" fire fighter lives in Emmaus.You would think he would live in the community he serves, must feel safer even with our part time volunteer fire fighters.That being said, I am all for decent stipends for our volunteer fire fighters and the sacrifices that they do make for our welfare.
Rob Mckay January 11, 2014 at 12:41 PM
It seems painfully obvious that the people willing to post in disapproval did NOT read it in it's entirety OR fully understand what's happening.. A "union" is not looking for dues or a way to make a greater stance. These men are looking for a way to secure a "job." It's not an outside entity coming in and trying to eat up new funds that they didn't have before! For the people that live in the borough and pay borough taxes, a monthly meeting attendance may not be the worst thing for you to take the time for, seeing as YOU'RE ALREADY PAYING FOR THESE PEOPLE. Check your municipalities' budget... In addition, it would seem to me that the objective question in a small way has already been answered by a few of you. You're acknowledging that these "volunteers" are getting compensated, and through the borough's payroll none the less.. Rattle your brain a little to figure out a way to differentiate the difference. That's why the question and the "Intent of organization" had arisen.
Rob Mckay January 11, 2014 at 12:43 PM
Furthermore, JUDY... It doesn't matter where a "Union" firefighter lives, seeing as the reality of the job entails that they live in not only where they spend a day off with their families, but where they are forced to stay ON DUTY away from them. Remember, long hours that far surpass what the normal citizen works.
careless fills January 11, 2014 at 02:28 PM
@bob - what do you mean that "these men are trying to secure a job"?
Rob Mckay January 12, 2014 at 02:44 PM
@careless fills: First of all, the main focus of the hearing with the FLRB was to see whether or not the previous yet standing conditions concerning these persons qualified them as EMPLOYEES of the Borough now. It sounds to me like there was quite a few things done in the municipality concerning the FD where this being the possible end result was overlooked by the voted leaders. There are a lot of things that are public knowledge and readily available to any citizen that can be researched regarding the daily routine of the persons intending to organize. Some things that the disapprovers may want to look at and ponder what makes them and employee where they hold a job... How do you get paid and by whom? Are there taxes being withheld? Where are your work hours spent? Who owns and financially maintains that building? Who owns and financially maintains the "company vehicle" you might drive or operate? Are you compensated for your time?!? Ex: A person that drives new cars between dealers. Is he a volunteer even though he paycheck says "ABC MOTORS"? Something to think about. At the end of the day, these people are looking out not only for the best interests of themselves and/or their families, but for the public they serve as well because of the nature of the job. I caught wind that the Borough tried to get rid of overnight shifts fairly recently. Did anyone look at the statistics of overnight fires? I'm not a know-it-all, but overnight seems like a greater potential for loss of life because PEOPLE ARE HOME! How many complaints would come rolling in if the citizens had to wait for these servants to respond first to get the equipment and someone dies?? Collective bargaining is not a bad thing by any means. It is viewed that way by the people that don't understand it and want to complain. CBA's can regulate pay rates, scheduling, rules and regs, benefits, etc. for EVERYONE involved. Municipality included. That was all a lot to try and answer your question but I will try to summarize. What I mean in "securing a job" is that Organization (Union, ACT 111, CBA, whatever you want to call it) is the best way these people have to continue to provide the service the way they have been and secure it that way.

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