Union’s dispute with Westport fire chief goes public
WESTPORT — The Westport firefighters union has gone public with criticism of Westport Fire Chief Robert Yost after a March 13 vote of no confidence.
“Unfortunately, we cannot wait any longer,” the Westport Uniformed Fire Fighters Local 1081 said in a Facebook post. “Seven weeks into the crisis relating to COVID-19, the resounding feeling of no confidence in our leadership has only grown stronger.”
According to the post, 56 members were in favor of a proclamation of no confidence, five members were against it and three members abstained.
Nick Marsan, president of the union, said when the vote was held the First Selectman was notified because the union was trying to avoid controversy.
“We notified him that at that point, we weren’t interested in taking away from the seriousness of our focus on the pandemic,” Marsan said. “We’ve reached a point now where nothing has changed during the seven weeks of this crisis.”
Marsan said Yost’s lack of command presence led to the vote and the fostering of a divisive and hostile work environment ultimately led to the decision to publicize it.
“We shouldn’t be having to deal with that kind of stress from an internal source,” he said. “So enough was enough.”
But Yost, who has been with the department since 1988 and chief since 2017, said the dispute began months before the coronavirus pandemic.
“Prior to this vote, I was holding workers accountable for what I figured was abuse of sick time,” he said.
Yost said he issued verbal and written warnings regarding the abuse of sick days and at one point nearly two workers were calling in sick a day.
“We have 15 on shift and that’s like 10 percent of the work force calling in sick every day,” he said. “When they call in sick, you actually replace them with somebody...it was getting expensive.”
Yost said the vote has no legal significance and represents the union announcing to the public their displeasure with a situation.
“It’s a result of me holding the union and certain individuals accountable,” he said. “I appreciate the dedication and hard work they’re all doing. It’s unfortunate we have to do this in a public forum when we disagree.”
He said the publicized vote was something typically seen during contract negotiations, but the current contract with the union will not expire until July 2021. Negotiations are expected to begin this winter.
In its statement, the union further alleged Yost was not following proper town policies, such as wearing a mask, or other establishing proper protocols during the crisis.
However, Yost said he was being unfairly scrutinized. He added the allegation of breaking town policy came after someone walked past his office door and saw him without a mask.
“When out in the public and I have to interact with people, I’m wearing a mask,” Yost said. “When I’m sitting at my desk and there’s no one else in my office, I’m not wearing a mask.”
Town officials said they stand behind the fire chief despite the no confidence vote.
“Chief Rob Yost has the full support and confidence of First Selectman Jim Marpe,” Ralph M. Chetcuti, the town’s human resources director, said in a statement. “As a result of the Chief’s leadership, the town of Westport is proud of the response to the current COVID19 pandemic. He is also the Emergency Management Director and his expertise has been integral to the success.”
Marsan said the vote had nothing to with sick time usage. He added the union was not targeting Yost.
“If our leadership is not going to provide what’s needed than a labor union is going to step up and demand it,” he said. “This isn’t about Rob Yost. This is about what the firefighters of local 1081 deserve, and that’s solid leadership.”
Despite the vote of no confidence, Yost said he hopes to return to an amicable relationship with the firefighters’ union. He said other fire chiefs told him it was not uncommon to receive a vote of no-confidence from a union.
“In fact, my father was the fire chief in Norwalk in ‘79 and right after he made chief, they had a vote of no confidence for him,” Yost said. “He went on to serve the city of Norwalk as chief for almost 20 years.”