Amazon Talking to Unions — “Amazon.com Inc., JBG Smith Properties Inc. and union representatives in the D.C. region have met a few times in the last six weeks to discuss benefits and wages for the workers who will build HQ2 in Pentagon City.” [Washington Business Journal]
Changes Coming to Arlandria? — “For decades, developers have eyed Arlandria, the working-class neighborhood near Reagan National Airport where a transplanted Hispanic culture flourishes amid Northern Virginia’s upscale condominiums… Now, crime is down, the economy is humming, and Amazon is moving in virtually next door, with plans to hire thousands of well-paid workers, who’ll be in search of easy commutes.” [Washington Post]
Local Strategist Sued by U.S. Rep Raising Funds — Political strategist and Arlington resident Liz Mair is being sued by Rep. Devin Nunes, in a bizarre defamation suit that also names Twitter and two parody Twitter accounts as defendants. Mair is raising money for her legal defense. [Donorbox, Twitter]
Op-Ed: Nix Arlington Arts Cuts — “If the 2020 budget that Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz submitted to the County Board is implemented, it will prove to be devastating to the Arlington arts community.” [Washington Post]
Arlingtonians Help Save Bird — A pair of Arlington residents, including former Arlington Outdoor Lab executive director Neil Heinekamp, “came to the rescue of a distressed bird” found on a nature trail in The Villages, Florida. [InsideNova]
Kitchen Fire in N. Arlington High Rise — “Units called to 4300 blk of Lorcom Lane for oven fire on 6th floor of a residential high rise. Fire is out with minor extension to surrounding cabinets. Crews working to ventilate smoke and scaling back response.” [Twitter]
Nearby: Halal Butchery Controversy Continues — “Letter-writer compares proposed halal butchery in Alexandria to *slave auctions*: this is the same brutality…’ Even by the standards of Alexandria micro-controversies, the rhetoric around this thing is remarkable.” [Alexandria Times, Twitter]
Amazon is showing an increasing willingness to sign a collective bargaining agreement with local unions before it sets to work building new office space in Arlington, perhaps meeting a frequent demand of activists concerned about the tech giant’s labor practices.
Though the company cautions that nothing is set in stone until county officials formally sign off on an incentive deal to bring the tech giant’s new headquarters to Crystal City and Pentagon City, Amazon is sending signals that it’s open to the prospect of striking a “project labor agreement” with construction workers who could someday erect the company’s future home in Arlington.
Should the company someday strike such a deal, commonly known as a “PLA,” the agreement would set out the employment conditions for all workers involved in Amazon’s construction efforts (whether or not they belong to a union) before the company starts accepting bids for the project. The PLA could govern everything from pay rates to workers’ compensation claims, and the agreements are generally designed to ensure labor peace during a major project while also improving conditions for workers.
“We’re definitely open to it,” Amazon spokeswoman Jill Kerr told ARLnow. “But this is all still pretty early. We really have our heads down, focused on working with the community on this initial package for approval before county officials.”
Kerr says that company has already held an initial meeting on the topic with representatives from the Baltimore-D.C. Building Trades, a coalition of unionized construction workers, and JBG Smith, the company’s future landlord at some existing buildings and development partner for other properties.
A spokesman for JBG Smith declined to comment on the deliberations, but Kerr stressed that discussions were “all hypothetical” and remain very much in the earliest possible stages of debate. Amazon plans to both build new offices in Pentagon City and renovate others in Crystal City, and Kerr believes it’s too early to say how any future PLA would apply to that range of projects.
However, Steve Courtien, the D.C. field representative for the building trades, came away from the meeting cautiously optimistic about the prospects of someday striking a deal with Amazon.
During a Feb. 3 town hall on Amazon convened by Arlington Democrats, he said the company seemed generally “positive” about the idea, particularly because the tech firm has worked out PLAs for some of its other projects around the country — Kerr said she was unable to confirm that latter assertion.
As for JBG Smith, Courtien said the idea of a PLA was more of a “mind bend” to them, but he fully expects the development firm to follow Amazon’s lead, given the size of the company’s investment in the area.
“That’s what they have to get past,” Courtien said. “Amazon basically has to tell JBG, ‘this is what we want,’ then they say ‘OK’ and negotiate the PLA with private contractors.”
The County Board is signaling that it’s broadly supportive of those efforts, and members have said in the past that they’ve encouraged Amazon to strike a PLA before moving into Arlington.
But Virginia law prohibits government agencies from requiring PLAs as a condition of allowing new construction (in keeping with the state’s tradition of pro-business, anti-union regulations) and county officials are cautioning that they’ll only have a limited role to play in the discussions.
“I think I speak for the whole Board in saying it’s something we’re all supportive of,” County Board member Erik Gutshall said during the town hall. “But it’s not something we can legally mandate from them.”
Anti-Amazon activists have been similarly enthusiastic about the idea of a PLA for the company’s construction work, considering the frequent concerns raised about how the tech giant treats its warehouse workers.
Stories of employees being unable to take bathroom breaks without risking their jobs or warehouses filled with boiling heat in the summer and freezing cold in the winter have spooked many county residents. Roshan Abraham, a leading Amazon critic as part of his leadership role with the progressive group Our Revolution Arlington, also points out that the company has pledged to oppose any unionization efforts it encounters at its other new headquarters in New York City.
That’s why Abraham believes it will be crucial for Arlington workers to secure a PLA before Amazon comes to town, though he fears it might not be enough to combat the huge company’s power.
“We shouldn’t stop just at a PLA,” Abraham said during the town hall. “We should be pressuring them even further to stay out of their union-busting behavior, which has been pretty well documented elsewhere.”
Ultimately, Abraham is so skeptical of the company’s business practices that he believes it’s a poor fit for Arlington’s values (even though he is “not that deluded” to believe that the county will turn down the company’s new headquarters).
Board members say they have their own concerns about Amazon’s ethics, whether it signs a PLA or not, but they don’t believe they’re substantial enough to justify barring the company from moving in.
After all, Gutshall pointed out that Arlington is also home to Boeing, a major military contractor, and while he may not like that they “manufacture equipment that is designed to kill people all over the world,” he hasn’t tried to chase the company away.
“We’ve not made it a condition of a corporation locating here or a resident locating here to abide by our progressive values for how you conduct your business,” said County Board member Katie Cristol. “Some 10 or 15 percent of Arlingtonians voted for Donald Trump. I’m not a fan of that, but I’m not going to try to kick them out of Arlington County or say they can’t live here.”
Photo via JBG Smith
How might lowly local officials be able to bring one of the world’s largest companies to heel?
And while county and city leaders are optimistic that the tech giant will prove to be a reliable partner in the region, they’re also admitting that they don’t have all that many tools to push Jeff Bezos and company around.
“We have to focus on using the policy tools that we do have,” said County Board Chair Katie Cristol at an Amazon-focused town hall in Crystal City’s Synetic Theater last night (Monday).
Public speakers at the event, which was hosted by WAMU 88.5’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, fretted over how localities might address everything from the company’s labor practices to its commitment to hiring a diverse workforce.
Leaders in attendance sought to reassure nervous neighbors that localities will be able to extract community benefits from the company as it builds new space in Pentagon City and Crystal City. County Board member Libby Garvey even expressed optimism that “Amazon is going to affect us, but we’re going to affect Amazon too” when it comes to changing the company’s culture.
But concerns abound that Amazon’s status as the new economic engine for the area will give it unprecedented bargaining power in any dispute with local leaders.
“The County Board works really hard and wants to do the best they can for us, but Amazon, at any point, can say ‘No,'” said Roshan Abraham, an organizer with Our Revolution Arlington, a progressive group that has opposed the county’s pursuit of Amazon. “They always threaten to pack up and leave, it’s what they always do… We have very little leverage, particularly at the political level.”
Part of the problem for local leaders is that state law limits their ability to pursue some of the most aggressive pro-worker measures favored by Amazon skeptics. Virginia’s legislature, long dominated by Republicans, has adopted a series of measures designed to make the state more business friendly — perhaps most notably, Virginia is a “right to work” state, limiting the ability of unions to charge workers fees for representing them.
Several members of local unions urged officials to press Amazon to sign “project labor agreements” ahead of any new headquarters construction, or a contract with a union to lay out the working conditions for a project before construction gets started.
But Virginia has laws on the books designed to limit government agencies from requiring such agreements, and Cristol pointed out that “the state has made it very clear that we can’t use those” in many situations.
However, she did pledge to urge Amazon to work with unions and offer fair working conditions on its construction sites — and the question gave her a chance to underscore just how meaningful it might be if her fellow Democrats seized control of the General Assembly in next year’s elections.
Other attendees were similarly nervous that the county won’t be able to force Amazon to fork over cash to spur the development of more affordable housing, particularly as the arrival of the company’s planned 25,000 workers strain the region’s housing market.
On that front, however, Arlington officials are confident that they’ll be able to use their existing development process to require Amazon to chip in more money for its Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a loan program designed to incentivize reasonably priced development. Of course, that will have to wait until the company starts building new facilities, which could take years yet.
In the meantime, housing advocates are optimistic that the tech giant is committed to the issue of housing affordability, and could agree to some select contributions on its own.
Carmen Romero, vice president of real estate development with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, said both Amazon and its major landlord in Arlington (JBG Smith) have told her they “want to be at the table” when it comes to discussions about creating new affordable developments. She even suggested that JBG could agree to donate some small portion of the large swaths of land it owns in Crystal City and Pentagon City to a nonprofit like her group, allowing for new affordable homes in the immediate vicinity of the headquarters.
“It’s very fair to ask Amazon to join us at the table as part of the philanthropic community,” Cristol said. “If they’re going to be a major player here, we’re very interested in seeing a big commitment from them.”
Alexandria Mayor-elect Justin Wilson added that the mere fact of Amazon’s interest in the region has already changed the conversation at the state level. He noted that state lawmakers were previously reticent to commit to major affordable housing funding, despite Northern Virginia leaders “banging our heads against the wall in Richmond,” but officials agreed to send an additional $15 million to the Virginia Housing Development Authority as part of the offer to Amazon.
“This was important to Amazon,” Wilson said, drawing a few laughs from skeptics in the audience. “But we were able to make the argument to the state government that this was something that had to be part of the package to help us attract a major employer.”
For Amazon opponents, however, it’s not enough that the company and state might voluntarily agree to measures to offset the impending impacts on the county.
Abraham’s group is pushing the concept of a “community benefits agreement,” a deal that a coalition of neighbors would strike directly with the company to ensure it invests in the community’s priorities, as an alternative to government officials haggling on their behalf.
It may not be enough to answer all their concerns, but he expects it may be a better path to pursue than hoping local politicians can win battles with a company owned by the world’s richest man.
“If we get Amazon to make these commitments to our community now, that, I believe, is the best way we have of protecting ourselves,” Abraham said.
Arlington Democrats are throwing their support behind a group of workers with disabilities who have spent the last few months on strike, demanding the chance to unionize.
The county’s Democratic Committee voted Wednesday (Aug. 1) to urge Didlake, a Manassas nonprofit who employees the workers, to “respect the rights of its workers” at the Army National Guard Readiness Center on S. George Mason Drive and recognize that they’ve repeatedly voted to form a union.
“We feel the Democratic Party should support labor, and this was happening right here in Arlington, so we wanted to take a stand,” committee chair Jill Caiazzo told ARLnow. “It was not a tough call… and hopefully this will focus more attention on it and keep the drumbeat up. This issue is not going away.”
Roughly a dozen Didlake employees, who provide maintenance and custodial services at the center, walked off the job in late May, arguing that they have the right to unionize and negotiate with the company to somehow bring down soaring healthcare costs. But Didlake claims that, because the company only employs the workers through a federal program designed to help disabled people find jobs, they don’t have the same ability to unionize as other workers.
The dispute has made it to the National Labor Relations Board, where officials have twice ruled that the company should recognize the group’s union, organized with the help of a branch of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. Yet Didlake has repeatedly appealed the NLRB’s rulings, and its executives say they’re waiting on a final decision from the body before weighing their next steps on the matter.
“What we’re most concerned about is not being able to help our people with disabilities if the union comes between us and them,” Didlake CEO Donna Hollis said in a video statement released July 11. “We’ve been silent on this issue for too long… We care tremendously about our employees and want to make sure they’re not losing access to government funded programs and services.”
The company expects a final NLRB ruling before the end of the year. In the meantime, company spokeswoman Erika Spalding told ARLnow that Didlake has “had to hire temporary employees to fill the gaps” left by the striking workers.
“We agree that the wages and costs of healthcare can be improved for our employees,” Hollis said. “But we need more funding to serve more people”
Regardless of the company’s financial situation, workers argue that they’ve long been underpaid and had to cope with rising healthcare costs on low salaries. Some say they earn less than $13 an hour, and none of the striking workers make as much as $15 an hour, factors noted by the ACDC in its resolution supporting the workers.
They believe a union could help at least get the two sides talking to hash out these issues. But, for now, it seems the company and its workers will stay at an impasse.
“We are very constrained by the legal requirements around this so we are unable to communicate with our own employees around this issue,” Spalding said. “It would be construed as interfering with the employees’ rights to organize.”
Construction-related changes at one Reagan National Airport arrivals terminal have local taxi drivers fuming, and they argue airport officials are ignoring their complaints while catering to ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft.
Dozens of drivers serving the airport have begun leading protests outside Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority meetings in Crystal City, with the most recent demonstration coming last week, in order to force attention on the issue.
Backed by the National Airport Taxi Drivers Association and progressive organizers with New Virginia Majority, the drivers are urging the airport to change how it’s managing construction work that’s necessitated lane closures at its arrivals area for Terminals B/C. With less curb space available, they say taxis are getting squeezed out by Uber and Lyft drivers, with cabs unable to leave their taxi stands in a timely fashion due to the increased traffic.
“That’s not good for passengers or drivers, because we’re just sitting there with the meter running for 10, 15 minutes at a time,” said Tibebu Ergete, a longtime taxi driver and one of the organizers of the protests. “This is destroying our business.”
Ergete estimates that some drivers have seen as much as a 40 percent dip in earnings as they increasingly jockey for curb space with rideshare drivers, though he would concede that taxis have seen ridership declines for years now as Uber and Lyft have gained popularity.
Still, he’d rather see rideshare customers shuttled off the premises to meet their drivers, who already have to stage in a nearby parking lot as they wait to accept rides.
“We’ve given [the MWAA] plenty of options to deal with the construction,” Ergete said. “But they won’t listen to us. They only put Uber’s interests first.”
Christina Saull, a spokeswoman for the MWAA, said airport officials are trying to balance the competing demands of everyone impacted by the construction, and said the “dialogue is ongoing” about how to improve arrival conditions. However, she would say that the MWAA does not see shuttling rideshare users elsewhere as a workable solution, arguing that “we don’t see that as providing good customer service for anyone.”
“We’ve considered everything they’ve suggested,” Saull said. “But we have to weigh a multitude of preferences in this case. We’re moving a large volume of traffic through a really small area.”
Uber spokesman Colin Tooze wrote in a statement that the construction means “the pickup experience at DCA is not an ideal one right now” but said his company in “regular dialogue” with the MWAA to ensure “ensure a smooth experience for riders and drivers.” Lyft spokeswoman Campbell Matthews wrote in a statement that “we are glad to work with officials at the airport on a pickup and drop off arrangement that works well for passengers, drivers and the airport.”
Saull also pointed out that taxi drivers already have double the curbside pickup space at the arrival terminal compared to rideshare drivers, and that the MWAA levies a higher fee on airport trips by Uber and Lyft than it does for taxis.
But Ergete believes the MWAA is still overly deferential to the companies, as demonstrated by the refusal by its Board of Directors to discuss these complaints at any of its meetings.
Saull is urging drivers and passengers alike to simply “hang with us until the middle of next year,” when construction work at National will move inside, and the arrival lanes will reopen. Yet Ergete fears the damage inflicted by the current setup may prove to be irreversible.
“Our concern is our future,” Ergete said. “If they destroy the taxi industry, what is going to happen to the public? What is going to happen to the drivers who have been there for 40, 50 years?”
A group of workers with disabilities at the Army National Guard Readiness Center on S. George Mason Drive has gone on strike, pushing for the right to unionize and a reduction in healthcare costs.
A dozen employees with Didlake, a Manassas nonprofit that contracts with the National Guard to provide maintenance and custodial services at the center, walked off the job on this past Friday. They’ve been hoping for more than a year now to organize with the help of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, commonly known as LiUNA, but Didlake has repeatedly refused to recognize their efforts and negotiate with the workers.
The employees and union organizers claim that their Didlake supervisors have treated them poorly and done nothing to tamp down skyrocketing healthcare costs, a particularly troublesome development for workers who need to visit the doctor frequently to manage chronic health conditions. Didlake’s attorneys argue that the nonprofit only employs these workers through a federal program designed to help disabled people find work and therefore they don’t have the same ability to unionize as other employees.
The dispute has found its way to the National Labor Relations Board, but Didlake employees at the site said they decided to go on strike to force more attention to the issue.
“They don’t treat us equally,” Samantha Ulloa, a Didlake employee for the last five years who lives with epilepsy, told ARLnow. “They say they treat us better than regular people with no disabilities. But if we sit down for a few minutes, they say ‘No,’ and have us get up right away and work nonstop… We have nobody to support us right now.”
A spokeswoman for Didlake didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But, in NLRB filings, the nonprofit’s attorneys argue that Didlake has a “primarily rehabilitative relationship” with these employees as part of the federal “AbilityOne” program, and injecting a union into the arrangement could hurt the company’s ability to offer services to its workers.
“The fabric of Didlake’s rehabilitative program and the supports and services received by the participants are jeopardized and could be damaged” if the employees proceed with collective bargaining, Didlake attorneys wrote in a June 2017 NLRB filing.
Yet Ulloa argues that Didlake’s response to the workers’ complaints shows that the nonprofit isn’t truly listening to their concerns. While she appreciates the job coaching services the company offers, she noted that she and her husband currently pay about $800 a month just to afford health insurance — a cost that’s barely manageable on her minimum wage salary.
“The union could help us by getting us better benefits, supporting us and standing up for us,” Ulloa said.
The union leading the charge, 32BJ SEIU, says that wheelchair attendants, skycaps, baggage handlers, checkpoint agents and cabin cleaners at the airports “earn as little as $6.75 an hour plus unreliable tips.”
The strike was authorized during a rally at National Airport today.
“The entire crowd marched for nearly a mile outside DCA to the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority headquarters to demand that the board ensure contractors pay their workers $15 an hour,” the union said in a press release. “The workers were part of a nationwide Fight for $15 day of disruption, including strikes and protests at 330 locations and at 20 major airports nationwide.”
— Bri Carter (@ABC7Bri) November 29, 2016
Among those participating in the rally were the workers, clergy, community groups and state delegate Alfonso Lopez.
“Given the vital role that airport workers play in keeping air travel running smoothly, safely, and on-time, it is disappointing that contracted workers at DCA are not paid a living wage for the critical work that they do,” Del. Lopez (D-Arlington) said in a statement. “In our nation’s capital, we can and should do better for those who help keep our economy moving. MWAA should act now to ensure that contractors are paid $15 an hour.”
Locally, the workers are employed by a private contractor, Huntleigh Corporation.
More from the press release:
“We work very hard to ensure that travelers have a safe and clean airport, but we are ready to go on strike to ensure we can provide for our families,” said Aynalem Lale, a wheelchair dispatcher at Dulles. “If I made $15 an hour, I wouldn’t have to work two jobs and would not have to sleep at the airport between jobs.” …
Four decades ago, every job in an airport was a good, family-sustaining one. Men and women worked directly for the major airlines, which paid a living wage, provided pensions and health care and respected Americans’ right to stick together in a union. That’s no longer the case. Today, most Americans who work at airports are nonunion and are employed by subcontractors that pay low wages, without any benefits. Their jobs now represent the failures of a political and economic system geared towards the wealthy few and corporate profits at any cost.
Between 2002 and 2012 outsourcing of baggage porter jobs more than tripled, from 25 percent to 84 percent, while average hourly real wages across both directly-hired and outsourced workers declined by 45 percent, to $10.60/hour from more than $19/hour. Average weekly wages in the airport operations industry did not keep up with inflation, but instead fell by 14 percent from 1991 to 2011.
America’s airports themselves are also a symbol of the concerted effort to erode the ability of working people to improve their jobs. President Reagan fired and permanently replaced 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981, paving the way for a decades-long march by corporations and elected officials to systematically dismantle Americans’ right to join together on the job. By zeroing in on airports Nov. 29, worker-class families are looking to transform a symbol of their decline into a powerful show of their renewed force.
All told, the Fight for $15 has led to wage hikes for 22 million underpaid workers, including more than 10 million who are on their way to $15/hour, by convincing everyone from voters to politicians to corporations to raise pay. The movement was credited as one of the reasons median income jumped last year by the highest percentage since the 1960s.
The workers have faced eight months of delay in seeking a new contract with “modest” pay increases and a paid sick leave option, according to their union, the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA). The workers are employed by Davey Tree Expert Co. and Greenleaf Services Inc., which have contracts with the cemetery, LiUNA says.
The union issued the following press release this afternoon.
The men and women who care for the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery may strike the cemetery’s grounds-keeping contractor, following nearly eight months of delay in reaching a new contract agreement.
The 45 workers, members of Local 572 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, are seeking three annual pay increases and the introduction of paid sick leave. The workers are jointly employed by Davey Tree Expert Co. and Greenleaf Services Inc.
“Members of our military have risked their lives to defend the rights and freedoms of our Constitution, including the freedom to join together in a union for common interests,” said Larry Doggette, Business Manager of Local 572 and a veteran of the U.S. Marines. “It is disgraceful that these fundamental rights and freedoms would be denied at our nation’s military cemetery during a holiday in honor of those have lost their lives in defense of freedom.”
In May 2015, the workers voted in favor of joining together in the union to negotiate for better wages and working conditions. The workers are seeking a boost from their approximately $13 per hour pay rate. They are also seeking sick leave; currently workers have no paid sick leave.
The union and the companies reached an agreement this year on most non-economic issues, and workers presented their pay and sick leave proposal in October 2015. The employers had promised a response, but repeatedly delayed and cancelled the last negotiating session scheduled for this month.
Under a recent executive order by President Obama, up to seven days of sick leave will be required by federal contractors in 2017. However, rather than enshrining the sick leave in a contract, the employers proposed that sick leave be consistent with the order.
“It may be that they are running out the clock, hoping for new president who might rescind the executive order,” Doggette said. “But workers voted for a union, they want a contract and their rights to one should be respected.” Doggette added, “We believe we could easily reach an agreement if the employers would negotiate.” Doggette said that any strike would likely begin before the Memorial Day holiday, and absent an agreement, continue through it.
LIUNA’s Mid-Atlantic Region includes more than 40,000 workers predominantly in the construction industry in Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, the District of Columbia, Virginia and North Carolina.
Flickr pool photo by Jeff Reardon
Janitors to Rally with Candidates in Ballston — About 150 part-time janitors will rally in Ballston this afternoon for a new union contract. The rally is scheduled for 4:00 p.m. in front of the National Science Foundation at 4201 Wilson Blvd. Democratic County Board candidates Katie Cristol and Christian Dorsey are expected to attend the rally to lend their support, according to a press release from the 32BJ SEIU union.
Arlington Man Killed in D.C. Pedestrian Crash — An Arlington man, 31-year-old George Mina, has died several days after being struck by a car on Wisconsin Avenue NW in D.C. Mina, a pediatric phlebotomist, was struck by the driver of a Jaguar while crossing Wisconsin at Veazy Street NW on June 10. A rally for pedestrian safety was held in the area last night, with advocates calling for D.C. to implement pedestrian safety measures currently in use in Arlington. [NBC Washington]
No Opponent for Commonwealth’s Attorney — A potential independent candidate for Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney came up just a couple of verified petition signatures short of the 140 he needed to qualify for the ballot. Criminal defense attorney Frank Webb said he will drop his bid to get on the ballot. Incumbent Democrat Theo Stamos is now running unopposed. [InsideNova]
WW2 Vets Boogie at DCA — Video posted on YouTube shows a group of World War II veterans, in a Reagan National Airport terminal last month awaiting their honor flight back to Kentucky, dancing to a live rendition of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” [Patch]
Flickr pool photo by Joseph Gruber
This morning, the Arlington Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Association (the IAFF Local 2800) issued a long, detailed statement on the need to staff Tower 104, which serves the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, and Rescue 109, which serves Pentagon City and Columbia Pike, with four firefighters, as opposed to their current three-person staffs.
“Tower 104 and Rescue 109, with an ever-rising response area population, massive increase in high-rise square footage, terrorism threat, and other changing factors, require adequate staffing to safely and effectively carry out our assignments,” the Local 2800 writes. “The current staffing of three firefighters is woefully and dangerously inadequate.”
Rescue 109 was one of the first responders to the house fire in Nauck on March 15 that claimed two lives, and the firefighter who was injured fighting the blaze was on the three-person truck. He has not yet returned to duty, according to the Local 2800.
Tower 104 is a large fire truck with a ladder and “bucket” that puts firefighters into position, while Rescue 109 is a truck with no ladder that transports firefighters to emergency scenes, but comes equipped with tools for responding to car accidents and building collapses, according to Arlington County Fire Chief James Schwartz. Both trucks are staffed with firefighter/EMTs.
Schwartz said he has been advocating for four-person units for years, but he said budget constraints have prevented Tower 104 and Rescue 109 from joining the rest of the county’s fleet with four-person staffs.
“It’s been a longstanding position of mine and it has been advocated by the department for some time,” Schwartz told ARLnow.com this afternoon. “Obviously, the Board has to make policy decisions. I think they, too, would like to get to four-person staffing in each of the units. Sometimes the budget guidance is limiting in that regard.”
Schwartz said four-person staffing is not as simple as just hiring two more firefighters. Each additional firefighter on a truck is the equivalent of four full-time positions, to account for three eight-hour shifts a day and covering for vacation and sick leave.
“In order to achieve the safe staffing levels that we’re after, it would require us to hire eight new positions,” he said. “That’s not an insignificant budget issue. It’s doable, and I think the Board is supportive of this effort.”
Schwartz said years ago, only about half of Arlington’s fire trucks were manned by four-person crews, but the last time the county added staff to bring fire trucks up to four-person teams was in 2004.
Four-person trucks are not just the ideal position for the union, Schwartz said, but it’s also the national standard as dictated by the National Fire Protection Association and several other advocacy groups. Despite the fact that Tower 104 and Rescue 109 are assigned to some of the county’s most densely populated areas, the decision to leave specifically those two units undermanned was done after careful risk analysis.
“Almost every unit in the department is quite busy and has a level of responsibility that is not greater or lesser than any other unit in the system,” he said. “We have 14 suppression units in service every day. Twelve have four-person staffing, and those were selected based on judgments we make that have a lot to do with call activity, the kind of calls that units run. I have to make judgments based on the resources I’ve been allocated.”
Schwartz said the County Board gave County Manager Barbara Donnellan direction to “review all public safety staffing and to make a recommendation for FY 2016,” at a budget meeting last month. To the Local 2800, FY 2016 is already too late.
“It has been shown that increased staffing reduces firefighter injuries, thus reducing the amount of money paid by Arlington taxpayers to care for and backfill with overtime employees,” the union writes. “Tower 104 and Rescue109 are limited in being able to safely, quickly, and effectively perform… critical functions while understaffed with three firefighters… This is dangerous and unacceptable.”
A coalition of unlikely allies is pushing for a major change in the structure of Arlington’s government. On Wednesday, the Arlington Republican Party voted to join the Green Party, the police union, and the firefighters and paramedics union, in petitioning for changes to county leadership.
The proposed change would shift power away from the (unelected) county manager. Instead, more responsibility would lie with the county board, which would be elected by districts rather than at-large. Republicans hope this might result in the first Republican board member in more than 10 years. The Greens see a similar glimmer of hope for reversing electoral futility.
More on how this coalition of competing interested formed, from the Sun Gazette.