A correction has been made to this article.

WINCHESTER — City Council is giving Winchester’s Human Resources Department an extra month to address concerns raised by career firefighters and paramedics over proposed changes to the city’s vacation and sick leave policies.

“This is one of those issues ... that could be a game changer for us,” Winchester Fire and Rescue Chief William Garrett told council at its meeting Tuesday night.

Winchester Human Resources Director Paula Nofsinger has proposed the following modifications to the current Comprehensive Employee Management System, which was implemented in 1979:

Rebrand the city’s vacation and sick leave programs as paid time off (PTO).

Convert the city’s sick leave bank, which gives employees the option of setting aside a certain number of vacation or sick days per year in case of a serious medical condition, to medical leave. Any PTO that is earned but not used would automatically be added to a staff member’s medical leave.

Enroll employees not covered by the Virginia Retirement System’s short-term disability benefit into a similar program offered by the city.

Convert the city’s three “floater days” — Presidents Day, Columbus Day and Apple Blossom Friday — to paid holidays. As a result, Winchester would offer employees 13 paid holidays per year instead of 10.

Nofsinger told council that details about the proposed changes were shared with city employees at a total of 25 meetings attended by 440 of Winchester’s 553 municipal employees. Overall, she said, the reaction from workers was positive.

However, members of the Winchester Professional Firefighters and Paramedics-IAFF Local 3401 union claim the proposed PTO policies are unfair because career firefighters and paramedics work more hours per year than other city employees — 2,496 hours annually, compared to 2,080 for most city staff — but would accrue the same amount of annual vacation and sick time as everyone else.

“After five years, they’ve basically worked another year [compared to other city employees],” Councilor Kim Herbstritt said.

Local 3401 President Marcus Ballenger said the proposed changes would also make it difficult to recruit and retain career firefighters and paramedics because other nearby jurisdictions, including Frederick County, allow first responders to earn more PTO.

“This hurts our community,” Ballenger told council.

City Manager Eden Freeman conceded that Frederick County, Staunton, Harrisonburg, Chesterfield County and other Virginia municipalities have policies that allow career firefighters and paramedics to accrue more PTO than their peers in Winchester, but those localities also require emergency personnel to work 260 to 416 hours more per year.

“I’m in favor of taking a little more time to get it right instead of ramming it through,” Councilor Les Veach said of the proposed PTO changes.

“I think more time would be best,” Garrett agreed.

City Council voted unanimously to continue the matter until its Dec. 10 meeting so Nofsinger can seek PTO alternatives that would address the concerns of firefighters and paramedics.

Freeman said the city will welcome input from Local 3401 and the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department, but only for the purposes of discussion.

“We’re not negotiating,” she said.

While there is no deadline for making the proposed PTO changes, Freeman said she would like council to decide the matter next month so any revised policies could be in place when the new year begins on Jan. 1.

In other business at Tuesday night’s meeting and work session, City Council:

Unanimously approved its meeting schedule for 2020.

Held a first reading of a proposed ordinance authorizing the approval of the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board’s Chief Elected Officials Consortium Agreement.

Held a first reading of a proposed ordinance to appropriate $16.7 million from the fiscal year 2020 budget for previously approved projects and grant and bond proceeds.

Unanimously approved a resolution of sorrow for Jack M. Phillips Sr., who served on council from Feb. 9, 1988, to June 30, 1990, and other government and community service boards from 1991 through 2014. Phillips died on Oct. 19 at his home in Winchester.

Received the financial report for fiscal year 2019 from the Handley Board of Trustees.

Unanimously agreed to forward a resolution authorizing a memorandum of understanding between the Winchester Police Department and Winchester Public Schools that outlines the duties and responsibilities of school resource officers. The proposed agreement formalizes the school safety program that has been in place since 1998.

Unanimously agreed to forward a resolution approving Winchester’s 2018 Consolidated Annual Performance and Evaluation Report.

Unanimously agreed to forward the proposed appointment of Gwen Borders-Walker to a four-year term on the Winchester-Frederick County Tourism Board.

Attending Tuesday’s City Council meeting and work session in Rouss City Hall were Mayor and council President David Smith, Vice President Evan Clark, Vice Mayor John Hill and councilors Kim Herbstritt, John Willingham, Bill Wiley, Judy McKiernan, Corey Sullivan and Les Veach.

— Contact Brian Brehm at bbrehm@winchesterstar.com

(10) comments

ginamcintire

First line says Correction has been made. Guess u found it.

URA SNOWFLAKE

Is this firefighters union a legitimate union or just put together by the good ol boys of the city?

Jpine

Ms.Freeman’s statement of “we will not negotiate” is costing the city both career and volunteer firefighters.

firechiefowens

As volunteer fire and EMS personnel continue to decline in numbers, the demand for additional career personnel will increase. This is happening in this region and across the country. The competition between local governments to recruit and retain quality personnel is becoming fierce. Firefighters work a non-standard workweek and considerable more hours annually than typical 8-hour day employees. This makes them a special class of employee and a one-size-fits-all approach to salary, benefits and working conditions is not the right approach if you want to keep these employees on this side of the mountain. The city hired a very capable Fire Chief who understands the unique nature of the fire service and knows what it takes to recruit, train and maintain the skilled workforce the citizens of the City needs and deserves. I would encourage the City Council, City Manager and Human Resources Department follow the guidance provided by the Fire Chief on this critical issue to retain our best.

Harker2345

Did City Council and City Manager think their Fire Chief would be a puppet? Why hire someone with specific expertise and then undermine him? Clearly firefighters have a different kind of workweek and need benefits that reflect that fact. It is arrogant to disregard feedback from specialists/experts to the detriment of firefighters and, by extension, the safety of our city.

duffyhome

So is the current proposal that all Winchester employees accrue PTO at the same rate per pay period?

johnpetrie2

Uh oh. Somebody got called into the office on Wednesday.

libertyspirit

"served on council from Feb. 9, 1998, to June 30, 1990"

That does not seem possible.

Violet

It says from Feb. 9, 1988 to June 30, 1990. Yes this is possible.

Conservative

At 5:56 am on Nov. 14, 2019, it said "served on council from Feb. 9, 1998, to June 30, 1990". The Star must have gone back and fixed it without saying so.

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