Town Official and Union Head Scuffle Over Fire Fighter Wages, Staffing in Fairfield

Town Hall, Town of Fairfield (Image courtesy of Town of Fairfield)


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FAIRFIELD – After a Monday meeting, an ongoing dispute over firefighter wages and staffing escalated between the First Selectwoman and union president, who argued about costs and social media posts, as both parties await a final decision from arbitration.

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick announced at the Board of Selectmen meeting that both the town and the Fairfield Fire Fighters Association – a local affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters representing the Fairfield and Easton fire departments – had submitted their final offers for a new firefighter contract after two years of negotiations.

Kupchick said that it was now “allowable and appropriate” to discuss the dispute, and outlined the final offers. But on Tuesday, Fairfield Fire Fighters Association President Bill Tuttle released a statement saying Kupchick was “spreading mistruths” about fire department finances and rules of arbitration.

On a phone call with CT Examiner, Tuttle called the Monday discussion “disingenuous.”

According to Kupchick, the union contract expired on June 30, 2021, and the town and union began negotiations in March 2021. She said the parties were unable to reach a new contract agreement as the union’s proposal of 28 new positions and significant wage increases would have increased taxpayer costs.

Kupchick said the town offered mediation several times, which the union declined and instead filed for arbitration – meaning an outside panel would either choose the union or the town’s final offer for the 4-year firefighter contract. Tuttle concurred.

“I did not want to talk to them anymore – that part is absolutely true,” Tuttle told CT Examiner. “I had no interest in dealing with those people.”

Tuttle said that both during negotiations and in arbitration, the town refused to move from their original proposal. But on Jan. 30, 2023, the union and town adjusted their wage increases and staffing proposals and submitted their final offers.

The union requested 12 new firefighters – 16 fewer than their original proposal – and wage increases of four percent for 2021, five percent for 2022 and four percent for 2023 and 2024 respectively. The town offered four new firefighters, and proposed wage increases of two percent for 2021 and 2.75 percent for 2022, 2023 and 2024 respectively.

Kupchick said the union’s 4-year contract would cost taxpayers $10.6 million in total, and the town’s amounted to $6 million in total.

“I believe the town offered a fair proposal to address the concerns the union outlined in this contract throughout the process, and I join our Fairfield firefighters in wanting a resolution for a fair contract,” Kupchick said.

But Tuttle said he was doubtful of Kupchick’s final cost calculations.

“She thought the original one cost $30 million. I have to suspect her math is incorrect on the difference between their proposal and ours,” Tuttle said. “It was never $30 million. That number is just ridiculous.”

Asked by CT Examiner to clarify the $30 million calculation, Kupchick said that in addition to hiring 28 new firefighters for $3,896,148, the union proposed hiring three new inspectors for $429,402 and one new lieutenant at an unspecified cost. 

She said that the union’s original contract also included wage increases of four percent in 2021 and three percent in 2022, 2023 and 2024 respectively, which would add an additional $2,549,706 to current salary costs – not including the proposed hires – for a total of $26,522,035 over four years.

“When you add in the [lieutenant] and the new staffing with the wage increases it hovers around $30 million,” Kupchick said.

Tuttle said that he was expecting a ruling from the arbitration panel by the end of April or beginning of May. He said getting the additional 12 hires was a “long shot,” but said he was confident in the arguments presented by the union for increased wages.

“We make less money than Westport, West Hartford, Norwalk. They all make more money than we do,” Tuttle said. “There’s no reason to give us another pay cut.”

Tuttle said he also took issue with Kupchick’s delayed response to union and resident requests for an update.

While Kupchick said she was advised not to speak on the dispute during arbitration, Tuttle said that was false – he said union leadership had openly discussed the contract on social media with no repercussions.

“She doesn’t want to talk about it. That’s fine,” Tuttle said. “But saying that she’s not allowed to talk about it is patently false.”

Tuttle also said he was frustrated by the lack of notification as the update was not included in the Monday meeting’s agenda.

“You’re making a statement because you think the public needs to know,” Tuttle said. “How come you didn’t tell anyone you’re making a statement or put it on the agenda?“

Tuttle said he appreciated Selectwoman Nancy Lefkowitz’s comments at the Monday meeting, who questioned whether the union was notified about the update.

“I definitely appreciate being updated,” Lefkowitz said to Kupchick. “…I just think an update could have been better served if it had been publicly noticed on the agenda, just so people could listen in.”

In response, Kupchick said the update was not an open discussion, but rather a courtesy to the board. 

“I just think there’s been a lot of angst surrounding this, and I don’t think we need to add to it,” Kupchick said. “I’m just simply updating. There is no further discussion.”

Earlier in her update, Kupchick referenced ongoing social media posts on the union’s Facebook page, calling the contract dispute a “hot button issue” for residents.

“It is truly unfortunate that some of the union leadership launched a bit of a misleading social media campaign, one which has had residents believing that they were not fairly compensated or were unsafe,” Kupchick said.

But Tuttle said that without the social media posts, the union couldn’t have pushed the town to move from their original proposal of no new hires to their final offer of four new hires.

“The fact that they offered at least one [hire] is because they are trying to placate the public,” Tuttle said. “We’ve shined a light on a glaring deficiency in this fire department, and they don’t like that light.”

Tuttle said he appreciated support on social media, but said many residents were unaware of how broken the relationship between the town and the union was.

“A lot of people on the outside probably think, ‘Hey, after [arbitration] is over, then things will just get back to normal,’” Tuttle said. “Things are never gonna be back to normal here. This has been so divisive.”

Editor’s Note: “West Haven” has been corrected to “West Hartford.” This story has been updated.