FAIRFIELD – The local firefighter union has accused the town of purposeful “wage theft” as they await contractual pay increases, but town officials say that a delay is typical for such contracts, and that the union is not helping speed the process by inundating the town’s Human Resources Department with nearly 200 complaints.
The president of Fairfield Fire Fighters Association, Bill Tuttle, said local firefighters still have not received retroactive wage increases outlined in a 2021-2025 union contract, marking more than three years since firefighters last secured pay increases.
“There’s two reasons why we didn’t get paid. It can only be one of two things – petty vindictiveness or incompetence,” Tuttle told CT Examiner.
The union and town began negotiations for a new contract in 2021, and were unable to reach an agreement. The town offered mediation several times, but the union instead filed for arbitration – leaving the decision to an outside panel and costing the town $251,000.
On July 14, the arbitration panel ruled in favor of the town on salaries, retroactively giving firefighters a 2 percent increase for 2021, a 2.75 percent increase in 2022, and a 2.75 percent increase effective July 1, 2023.
Over a month later, Tuttle said, firefighter paychecks remain unchanged.
But in a call with CT Examiner, First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick strongly rebutted Tuttle’s claim. She said the delay is typical of retroactive contracts, and is not rooted in malice or incompetence.
“Bill Tuttle uses a lot of inflammatory language pretty much every time he speaks. And it is not out of spite, and our HR department is not incompetent,” Kupchick said. “It takes time to do it.”
Kupchick said the town’s Department of Human Resources is working to build a new pay model that incorporates the retroactive wage increases for all firefighters and pay increases for longtime employees, a process that she said is time consuming.
She added that the numerous complaints firefighters have sent to the Department of Human Resources have also taken focus away from creating the new model.
Under the union contract, firefighters can submit grievances to the fire chief and human resources director if they have an issue with their pay, hours or working conditions. The town must then meet with the complainant and issue a decision within 14 days of the meeting.
“It’s not as if the HR Department can just put those in a drawer,” Kupchick said. “I mean, there’s statutory obligations they have to do.”
Tuttle confirmed that the firefighters have sent a total of 186 grievances over the missing pay in the last two weeks – one set of 93 complaints on Aug.16, and another 93 complaints on Tuesday.
Asked how long it could take the town to create the new pay model, Kupchick could not provide a specific timeframe, but said the town is following the “exact same” process as they have for other retroactive union contracts.
“I guarantee you no one is trying to stall anything,” Kupchick said. “They’re working on it very hard.”
Earlier this week, Human Resources Director Cathleen Simpson offered to meet with Tuttle on Friday to discuss the grievances. But Tuttle argued that the pay needs to be updated immediately, especially given that firefighters have been without pay increases since 2021.
“They’ve all had wage theft happen to them,” Tuttle told CT Examiner. “Now that wages have started to surge these last couple of years, we’ve been left behind.”
In addition to requesting the retroactive increases, Tuttle said the firefighters are also demanding two weeks of interest payments at the current market rate.
Tuttle said the money owed to firefighters is sitting in a municipal account earning interest, and said he would continue to demand the interest payments even after the wage increases have been implemented.
“Do you know anyone who gives no-interest loans out?” he said. “You’ve owed me $11,000 for two years, and you’re not paying interest?”
Tuttle claimed that the town is attempting to “stick it to the firefighters” one last time by delaying the payment, and said he would continue to advocate for the staff.
But Kupchick said she still does not understand Tuttle’s hostility, especially given the town’s numerous offers for mediation.
The feud between Tuttle and the town came to a head earlier this year when Kupchick outlined the final offers for the union contract at a February Board of Selectmen meeting. After the announcement, Tuttle took to social media to dispute Kupchick’s characterization of the final offers, sparking a public debate between the two.
Since February, Tuttle has asserted that the relationship between the town and fire union is permanently broken.
Kupchick said the town respects Fairfield firefighters, and she had hoped the completion of the union contract would have resolved the ongoing conflict.
“I think I hoped that when this was over that we could shake hands,” Kupchick said. “And even though there’s been a lot of really disrespectful behavior from the union leadership towards the town, there has not been that at all from the town.”