By Mickenzie Hannon, Interning Correspondent
The Apopka Fire Department will make history tonight.
The upcoming Apopka City Budget Workshops begin at 5 pm today, July 19, 2021, and conclude on Wednesday. The three-day event gives the City Council a chance to address the needs of city departments, allowing them to allocate funds for the Fiscal Year 2022.
And with the recent historic unionization of the Apopka Fire Department, firefighters' needs— education and training reimbursement, pension protections, disability allotment — will also play a role in the workshop process.
Early attempts to form labor unions in Florida were often unsuccessful, further discouraging union supporters from organizing. In fact, it's said that Apopka resident Delbert Bannister tried to organize citrus workers in 1933, but was beaten and given three days to leave the state because unions were so unpopular at that time.
In 2021, things have gotten a little easier for organized labor.
On May 18th, members of the Apopka Fire Department voted 75-6 to unionize — the first successful attempt in the Department’s history.
The path to unionization began in July of 2020 when AFD employees in support of unionizing began hosting informal meetings, which soon culminated in a secret unofficial ballot. With a successful unofficial vote and a growing number of union supporters, they decided to meet with a representative from the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) for further guidance. On September 1st, members of the AFD submitted formal letters of intent and consulted the Public Employment Relations Council (PERC).
PERC is an independent agency based in Tallahassee that begins the unionization process and facilitates communication between the involved parties. PERC arranged meetings and handled communication between the AFD and the City of Apopka until the unionization process was finalized. Now, the AFD Union and the City of Apopka can directly communicate without PERC mediating.
After applying to PERC, members of the AFD held an official vote in determining eligibility to unionize—PERC requires a minimum 31% approval rating to continue the unionization process. With 65% approval, unionization efforts continued.
Alex Klepper serves as an engineer paramedic in the AFD and became the secretary and public information officer for the Union.
“People are less likely to see the full story or be confident enough to tell the full truth, so gives us that ability to have a voice that speaks in unison,” Klepper said.
The frequent change of leadership and city management also lends to the inconsistency in fulfilling the specific needs of firefighters, Klepper explained. “A career for us is going to last 20 or 30 years. If we all have a vision of where we want to go, we can just slowly and methodically work our way toward that goal… At least we don’t have to start from scratch each time somebody comes in [to fill a new position].”
Klepper believes unionizing allows for “a little bit more security to the basics of the operation, when it’s not controlled by appointment only and when we actually have a say in what goes on.”
Most AFD members now belong to the established Union, allowing for more participation in determining changes. The few Apopka firefighters who are not union members are “at the tail-end of their career,” he said.
As the unionization process progressed, PERC notified the City of Apopka of the unionization plans.
The vote on May 18, as well as the 15-day grace period that followed, concluded the AFD's efforts to unionize. PERC certified the votes and confirmed eligibility during a Zoom conference call with Mayor Bryan Nelson, City Attorney Michael Rodriguez, and City Administrator Edward Bass, as well as Klepper and the Apopka Fire Department Union President Matthew Gurgone. June 4th marked the official certification date of the Professional Firefighters Association IAFF Local 5293 as a collective bargaining unit.
The AFD Union will determine issues and points of negotiation among their membership through discussions and votes. If the points of negotiation are ratified with no appeals, the Union will then negotiate with the City of Apopka.
Klepper highlighted potential topics of negotiation, including education and training reimbursement, firefighter pension protections, and disability allotment.
Presently, according to Klepper, the AFD Union is not intending to negotiate salaries, rather establish education and training reimbursement.
“We pay for all of our outside education and training, which is very expensive,” he said. “In most standard operating fire departments, those are at least somewhat reimbursed.”
Klepper also addressed the connection between low retention rates and morale among firefighters and the increased spending cost of training.
Commissioner Diane Velazquez first learned of the unionization plans while campaigning for the special election to fill Seat #2.
“I learned of personnel changes and firefighters leaving to other fire departments," said Velazquez. "There was an uncertainty of job security and low morale within the ranks.”
“Some of our younger and really motivated firefighters who want to get special education, training, and certifications to help improve and bring back to the City, they are coming straight out of their pocket, and they’re not seeing that value as an employee,” Klepper explained.
“The City is growing exponentially, and it’s kind of been shouldered on the guys to keep up with that pace,” he said. “It’s on us to train ourselves.”
In addition to education and training reimbursement, the AFD Union intends to protect firefighters’ pensions, something, Klepper believes, should not be taken away.
“For us and the people retiring, it’s only fair, when they sacrifice 25 or 30 years of their life, that they get this pension because it’s not an easy job to deal with for that long period of time,” he said.
“Putting sandbags around their pensions,” as Klepper describes it, is one request that the Union Contract Committee is considering negotiating.
Since being a firefighter is physically demanding, Klepper hopes to include disability allotment in negotiations.
“Our sick leave and vacation leave all gets rolled into one, so we have to hold back on taking time off just in case we get hurt.”
Klepper is confident these requests and adjustments will pass. “We are not asking for the moon,” he said.
“The common thread among the firefighters for organizing to join the Fire Department Union was not about making demands but to secure what they had,” Velazquez said. “When I learned they wanted to organize and bring a Union into their folds, I let them know I would support the firefighters’ efforts and understood their concerns re: job security and benefits.”
Commissioner Alexander Smith reflected the same support for the AFD unionization.
“I think it’s a great thing," said Smith. "It gives the firefighters representation and gives them a voice that speaks for all the firefighters. I support the unionization of the firefighters.”
“We are now beginning to write our own history as the first Firefighter’s Union in this city since 1882. We have succeeded where many have tried and failed in their efforts to organize before us,” the Apopka Professional Firefighters Association announced in a Facebook post. “We now have the opportunity to speak with our voices in concert when it comes to securing those things affecting our and the department’s future. We are the present and the future Apopka Fire Department and a big part of ushering in what we hope to be a new progressive age for the City of Apopka and all of its residents.”
As a courtesy, Klepper explained, the AFD Union informed City Administrator Edward Bass of the potential budgetary impacts the Union negotiations may cause later this year when negotiations officially commence.
“I look forward to the workshop opening this new chapter and learning how this will shape our upcoming Budget Year of 2021-22. Especially, coming out of the 2020 Pandemic. Our First Responders have been on the front line during the entire Pandemic crisis,” Velazquez added.
With 85 union members out of 95 total members serving the Apopka Fire Department, Klepper says the Union “gives everyone a little extra sense of pride in the department.”
After legal contracts are finalized, Klepper hopes the Union will become more involved in “community action and charitable action.”
“At every City event, our First Responders are visible, engaging, and happily support the city events,” Velazquez said. “Their daily impact in our community resonates with positive feedback, earning the community’s trust with the services they provide each and every day.”
“We really have a vested interest in making sure we have the best services that we can provide for them. We have the smartest guys, the most educated and well-trained group,” Klepper said. “We have a lot of pride that we think we can be a place where, eventually, if we can keep marching toward our vision, 10 or 15 years from now, we are the place where people want to move to because Apopka is the safest place to be.”
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