By Jennifer Gomori, MAFF Editor

With possibly the lowest pay in the state and negative changes in staffing anticipated, Clay Township Fire Fighters decided it was time to be represented by a union. Their concerns, ranging from wages and overtime to scheduling of shifts, caused the group to vote in January to join MAFF.

“There’s a multitude of issues they were having that prompted them to say they needed union representation,” said Jerald James, MAFF Labor Relations Specialist. “They were not organized before. This is their first union.”

“We went with MAFF because they also represent part-time employees and the IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) doesn’t do that because they don’t really want any part-time Fire Fighters, they want only full time,” said Mike Olderman, local union representative. “We just have been treated horrible by the township and they would not negotiate. It doesn’t matter if you’re a paramedic with 20 years experience or a basic Fire Fighter, you get paid the same hourly rate. It’s just so unfair. We’re hoping to negotiate a fair contract.”

The primarily paid-on-call (POC) department has seven full-time Fire Fighters, which have been paid for through a Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant. However, that grant is expected to run out in October. “We’re kind of wrangling over that right now,” James said regarding contract negotiations. “According to the Employer, it doesn’t sound like they’ll be able to financially sustain the full-timers. They’ve already had their (grant) extensions. They won’t be able to get another SAFER Grant. They just indicated those 7 full-time positions in October will probably be vacated. I’m assuming they’ll transfer into paid-on-call as they are hiring more paid-on-call.”

The loss of full-time staff concerns Olderman, who said maintaining Fire Fighters on Harsens Island station is crucial for public safety. “The island station is currently staffed because of the SAFER Grant,” Olderman said. “I do feel that will be a problem after the SAFER Grant runs out. I do not feel they will staff it. You have to take the ferry to get here. There’s a lot of (response) time issues that could come into play.”

Before the SAFER Grant took effect in October 2015, the station was covered by individuals signing up to serve duty shifts, which didn’t provide steady coverage, Olderman said. “They didn’t add any money to the budget last year,” Olderman said. “We’re the farthest thing from the township’s mind. Everybody’s unionized except for us, even the secretaries.”

Clay Township Fire Fighters are among the lowest paid Fire Fighters in the state. Olderman said they are paid between $8.90 and $12 per hour (for full-time) and that they have not been compensated with overtime pay. “I don’t think there is anyone (in the state) who gets paid less than they do,” James said. “They’re essentially being paid minimum wage for working a 24 hour day.”

“Wages are a big concern,” Olderman said. “We would like to be paid fairly like the other departments.”

Overtime is also an issue and the reason Olderman quit his full-time position and went to a POC position. According to federal law, Olderman said, anything over 106 hours worked in 14 days should be paid as overtime and could come out the SAFER Grant funds. "They haven’t paid any of that,” Olderman said. “Matter of fact, I was one of the full-time guys. I helped the Fire Chief write the grant. I’m just working with someone on the island doing labor and I make more money. These newer guys have to have other jobs just to get by and it’s not fair.”

James said while the full-time status may not be something that can be saved, compensating fire fighters is key for the group of  about 25-30 members. Olderman said there are thousands of people on the lakes, which include Lake St. Clair and for Jobbie Nooner, a Mardi Gras like party that takes place twice a year in Muscamoot Bay on Gull Island. “Clay Township is a big township,” Olderman said, “With water and land we cover 80 square miles. We have two fire boats and an air boat.”

“The Employer is very open to working with the union,” James said. “They do have some current practices in place that are more than appropriate. They are a very well-trained department. We just have to focus on making sure the guys get compensation for their training and skill set.”