Austin firefighters are given time off for conferences, fitness competitions and to recruit members for the firefighter union with no oversight from the city, while being paid under one of the state’s most generous collective bargaining agreements regarding that leave time, according to documents obtained by The Texas Monitor.
The city’s 1,100 firefighters are contractually given a combined maximum of up to 6,600 hours annually in which to conduct union business, while public safety departments in other cities receive strict guidelines about such leave.
Those hours are spread out through the department. In 2017-2018, 70 firefighter association members received the leave time, according to timesheets.
The union and the city contend the activities, which include attending meetings of its political action committee, are within the bounds of the contract between the city and the firefighters union.
Two Austin citizens disagree and are suing the city in state court, alleging the payments for non-city activities violate the state’s constitution, which prohibits payment by a municipality to a private entity for work that does not benefit the public.
Firefighters, police and emergency medical service workers have worked out similar agreements with many cities in Texas, allowing varying amounts of hours for employees to do outside business. In Austin, those hours are known as authorized business leave, or ABL.
City records show firefighters are paid through ABL for attending retirement parties, legislative hearings, union conferences and meetings, and participating in national contests with firefighters from other departments, including a national contest called the Combat Challenge.
“ATx Combat-Combat Challenge [firefighters are] there to represent us, and to perform the activity, and represent the department and the association, and bring credit to it,” Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, said in an October deposition.
Nicks also defended the attendance of employees at a meeting of the association’s PAC on city time.
“We’re not lobbying, in the meeting,” Nicks said. “We’re not going out and meeting candidates. We’re not going out and advocating for issues. It’s at the [Austin Fire Association] Hall, with the members of the PAC, discussing items of public concern, and some of those items could be referendums, policies, or candidates.”
The city does not generally track the specifics of the roughly $200,000 annual payout for such leave.
“Every now and then we may ask for the utilization of hours, but it’s not something we do frequently,” Sylvia Flores, deputy director of the city’s labor relations office, said in a deposition this fall. The reason for asking for the reports is to “ensure that the members have enough time that they can utilize for contract bargaining.”
The suit was filed in 2016 by Austin residents Mark Pulliam and Jay Wiley. They are represented by two conservative nonprofits, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute.
Wiley is a failed Austin City Council candidate who in 2014 received the endorsement of the Austin Firefighters Association. He said that his legal action is not an anti-union move and is focused solely on the leave time.
“I agree with the collective bargaining agreement, just not that part of it,” Wiley said. The suit, he added, “has nothing to do with the union as much as it does the city, which permits this activity in violation of the state’s constitution.”
According to depositions that include testimony from Nicks, Flores, and Assistant Fire Chief Aaron Woolverton, the time is not tracked other than through a time allocation form submitted by the employee, which requires a general description as to what activities were performed.
Records show that over $200,000 in ABL time was paid by the city between October 2017 and August 2018, during the same time the firefighters association was asking for a tax increase to fund new stations. The annual payout is part of the union’s five-year agreement signed in 2017.
Nicks contends the system is fair and allows the firefighters to enhance the community, calling the lawsuit a form of union-busting.
“It seems they are trying to find embarrassing things in order to please their donors,” Nicks said in an interview with Texas Monitor. He acknowledged that the definition of lobbying can be subjective, “but we do things in the way the agreement allows us to.” The agreements have been in place since the early 2000s, he said.
“It’s an earned benefit that comes out of the negotiation,” Nicks said. “There is a notion that it is only going to be used for certain activities, so there is trust there and we don’t do a lot of work to see if they do what they say they are going to do.”
Mostly the lawsuit revolves around determining what employees are doing on the leave time, said Jon Riches, director of national litigation and general counsel for the Goldwater Institute.
Other city workers get paid time off, for example, to attend conferences and for continuing education. But Riches said those hours are plausibly to provide better service to the public.
The plaintiffs are questioning the public benefit of firefighters going to fitness competitions and attending PAC meetings, as well as challenging the city’s oversight of such payments.
“The city should have some kind of idea what these people are doing on this time,” said Riches, a member of the team representing the plaintiffs. “The city never should have entered into this agreement in the first place.”
In 2011, the Goldwater Institute unsuccessfully sued the city of Phoenix to end a similar agreement for police.
Austin has one of the state’s most lenient policies for the leave time.
Fort Worth firefighters are given a combined total of 1,684 hours, while San Antonio police pay into a leave pool that is restricted to a specified number of employees each year. In Arlington, firefighters receive 180 hours a year to conduct union business apart from contract negotiations with the city.
In Corpus Christi, selected firefighters are given several shifts to attend conferences and employee meetings, which are to be conducted on city property.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].