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Emergency dispatchers in Meriden have filed a complaint over what they say is chronic understaffing. | File photo.

June 29, 2020 07:07PM By Matthew Zabierek, Record-Journal staff 

MERIDEN — The city’s emergency dispatchers union is voicing concerns about “chronic understaffing” at Meriden’s dispatch center, which it says has required dispatchers to work “72- to 88-hour workweeks with no breaks or time off for rest.”

“This is a public safety crisis,” said Elizabeth Marotti, a veteran dispatcher and president of Local 1303-405 of AFSCME Council 4. “Short staffing puts dispatchers and the community we serve at risk. Plus, we need to recruit and retain dispatchers for the future.”

City Manager Tim Coon responded to the union’s statement in an email Monday, writing, “the City has been working with the Dispatch Union for months to rectify staffing shortages. Many ideas have been discussed with the Dispatcher Union and some have been implemented.” 

Charles Paris, staff representative for Council 4 who advocates on behalf of the bargaining unit, called the situation “simply unacceptable.” 

“The Director of Emergency Communications [Doree Price] is not only failing to advocate for the staff,” Paris said, “but she’s pouring gasoline on the fire by ignoring all reasonable requests for time off and targeting union members for speaking up. The work environment is toxic.”

On June 23, Council 4 filed a “municipal prohibited practice” complaint, against the city in which it accused officials of breaking labor law by retaliating against Marotti “for writing grievances and standing up for her fellow staff.”

The labor complaint, which will be adjudicated by the State Board of Labor Relations, states the city retaliated against Mariotti, who recently became union president, by issuing her a written reprimand “without cause” a couple of weeks after Mariotti filed the grievance. The complaint doesn’t specify the subject of Mariotti’s grievance. 

Coon said the city “cannot comment on on-going discipline procedures.”

The union complaint charges “the city is exhibiting clear anti-union behavior” and seeks “comprehensive statutory remedy including but not limited to an order to cause (the city) to cease and desist; make union and affected members whole for any all losses; any additional remedy determined to be appropriate by the board; and pay to (the union) all costs by (the union) in pursuance of this complaint and compliance therewith.” “I want to be clear that my job is fulfilling under normal circumstances. We make a difference in the community, but we’re being stretched beyond the breaking point.”

-Mark Batemen, dispatcher and union vice president

No date has been set for an informal hearing on the complaint. The union’s statement says it intends to share concerns about dispatcher staffing with Meriden residents and local elected officials.

“I want to be clear that my job is fulfilling under normal circumstances,” said dispatcher and union vice president Mark Bateman. “We make a difference in the community, but we’re being stretched beyond the breaking point.”

‘Biggest concern’

The issue of understaffing at the dispatch center has been a topic of discussion among city administration and elected officials for some time. 

During a budget presentation to the City Council’s Finance Committee in March, Price alerted councilors to the center’s understaffing and the ripple effects that has. 

“When you’re down that many positions, it’s a lot of overtime for the staff. They are working 12 and 16 hours,” Price told councilors during her budget presentation. “Their voluntary overtime is all (1.5x pay) and once it goes beyond 12 hours of voluntary overtime, it’s double time. Normally we don’t hit that mark all the time, but because we have a lot of overtime, a lot of it is mandated double overtime”

The center has struggled to recruit and retain dispatchers for several reasons, including that the city pays dispatchers less than most other municipalities and no longer offers a pension to new hires, unlike many other towns, Coon, the city manager, told councilors at the meeting earlier this year.

“People come here and they get certified and then they leave for places with pensions,” Coon said in March. He added at the time that he was working with Price, the dispatchers union, and the city’s Human Resources Department on short-, medium-, and long-term solutions to address staffing. “The staffing at the dispatch center is frankly my highest priority and biggest concern staffing-wise in the city.”

-City Manager Tim Coon, in March

“The staffing at the dispatch center is frankly my highest priority and biggest concern staffing-wise in the city,” Coon said in March. “The numbers of staff are down dramatically and, as a result, you see the overtime number come up. I do not like that relationship.”

The discussion about staff emerged during the March meeting after Price began talking about the city’s efforts to look into relocating its dispatch center, which she said has become too small to handle rising call volumes. 

The number of annual CAD, or computer-aided dispatch, calls the center receives has trended upward in recent years. In 2019, the center received a total of 60,279 CAD calls, a 10.7 percent increase from 54,431 in 2018 and a 16.8 increase from 51,604 in 2017, according to numbers Price provided councilors.

mzabierek@record-journal.com203-317-2279Twitter: @MatthewZabierek