Las Vegas Sun

September 23, 2021

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Bill would ban firefighter union leave at taxpayer expense

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Sen. Michael Roberson

Sen. Michael Roberson

Relentless in his criticism of county firefighters over sick leave and overtime pay, Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak is again on the attack, this time seeking to curtail taxpayer spending that compensates firefighters for conducting union business.

A bill in the Legislature would advance that fight by banning the use of taxpayer money to support union activity on behalf of any local government worker in Nevada. But a top union official says that idea lacks merit because the private sector also compensates employees for union business.

Figures provided to Sisolak by county staff showed that taxpayers spent $974,967 from 2006 through 2010 to reimburse the base pay of county firefighters who took leaves of absence to attend arbitration sessions, meetings and other union functions. Factoring in the time-and-a-half in overtime paid to firefighters who replaced those on union leave, Sisolak said the cost to taxpayers is considerably higher.

The county’s contract with International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1908 permits such compensation. But Sisolak said he wants the new contract, which is being negotiated, to direct the union to compensate firefighters for union leave rather than have taxpayers pick up the tab.

That’s because the way it works now, Sisolak said, taxpayers are footing the bill for both sides of labor negotiations between the county and the union.

“The taxpayer is paying for the county to represent the county and is also paying for the union to represent the union,” he said. “That doesn’t seem fair. I’m in favor of collective bargaining, but I don’t think taxpayers should pay for it.”

County records furnished by Sisolak show that over the past five years, 80 firefighters took 22,672 hours of leave for union business. Sisolak said he was “quite honestly shocked” not only by the amount of taxpayer money spent on union leave but also by the number of firefighters who have been compensated. He said this is markedly different from unions that represent Metro Police and other county employees, where a much smaller number of workers is typically compensated by taxpayers for union leave.

Much of the union leave is for conferences. In 2010, leave included:

• Eight firefighters taking 109 hours of leave Jan. 27-29 for the International Affiliate Leadership Training Summit in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

• Seven firefighters taking 312 hours of leave March 14-22 for the International Association of Fire Fighters Legislative Conference in Washington.

• Seven firefighters taking 304 hours of leave Aug. 21-27 for the union’s 50th Biennial Convention in San Diego.

Calls seeking response from union President Ryan Beaman weren’t returned.

But Rusty McAllister, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Nevada, said union leave is a negotiated benefit that results from collective bargaining between the union and the county. He said the union typically has to make concessions to get benefits such as paid union leave.

“Collective bargaining is a two-sided process, and whenever employees get a benefit, they often have to give up something in return,” McAllister said.

McAllister said he didn’t know the financial effect it would have on the firefighters union if it had to pay for union leave. But he said unions in general could be vulnerable if an employer filed a large number of employee grievances that the unions would have to defend.

Danny Thompson, Nevada AFL-CIO executive secretary, said having taxpayers compensate public employees for union leave is no different from what happens in the private sector. He said it is common for private-sector employers to compensate shop stewards who take time off for union activity, such as representing other employees in disciplinary hearings.

That argument is one reason unions can be expected to be vocal about Senate Bill 342, introduced Monday by Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas.

The bill, referred to the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee, would exclude all local government department heads and other administrative and supervisory employees from being members of union bargaining units. SB342 also would give local government employees the option to decide whether they want to pay union dues.

Sisolak said he has not decided whether to support the bill. But Roberson said he discussed the legislation with the commissioner, including the provision that would prohibit use of taxpayer money to compensate local government employees for union activity.

“To me it’s a no-brainier,” Roberson said. “If the unions want to conduct union activity, the unions should pay for that, not the taxpayers.”

But Thompson said SB342, which is co-sponsored by six Senate Republicans and no Democrats, is another example of “the right wing of the Republican Party going against the middle class.”

Sisolak is a Democrat.

Thompson called SB342 a diversion “from the real problem, which is we have a broken tax system and they’re trying to blame collective bargaining.”

“The problem is that this state needs to find ways to fund education,” he said.

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