State officials say they’ve taken steps to improve the workplace culture and climate in the Office of State Fire Marshal following employee complaints and a finding by the state’s labor relations board that the office committed a “flagrant violation” of a union contract.

“I would say we’re working better as a unit,” Fire Marshal Richard McCarthy said during a meeting with lawmakers Wednesday. “There are always going to be those who may resist some of the changes, but I think in general we’re heading in the right direction. I believe the morale is improving, but there’s still work to be done.”

But the executive director of the union that filed the complaint with the labor relations board in 2022 said employees represented by the union have been disappointed so far with steps the office has taken.

Fire Marshal Richard McCarthy. Maine Department of Public Safety.

“There hasn’t been the change we would like to see,” said Kevin Anderson, executive director of the Maine State Law Enforcement Association, which represents investigations employees in the fire marshal’s office. “The flavor today and what I took from it was there’s been quite a bit of change that’s occurred, but we’re not seeing what we would have expected.”

McCarthy and Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck were called to meet with the Legislature’s Government Oversight and Criminal Justice and Public Safety committees in Augusta Wednesday following complaints about workplace culture and the treatment of fire victims that surfaced when McCarthy was nominated to take over leadership of the agency in February 2023.

A survey of employees ordered by lawmakers uncovered additional concerns, and the Maine Labor Relations Board found in December that in 2022 the office committed a “flagrant violation” of its contract with the Maine State Law Enforcement Association.

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The office, which is a bureau within the Department of Public Safety, oversees investigations into fires and explosions and enforces life safety codes for buildings.

The labor relations board found that an unnamed lieutenant in the fire marshal’s office made changes to mileage reimbursements and the way employees swap shifts without going through the collective bargaining process.

TOLD TO SETTLE IT IN A BOXING RING

The office also infringed on union rights when the lieutenant made anti-union comments and told staff to settle their workplace disputes in a boxing ring, the board said.

McCarthy, who took over as fire marshal in March 2023, presented lawmakers Wednesday with a letter detailing changes that have been made in several areas of concern, including staffing, scheduling, human resources and community needs.

“I have committed myself to making the office a better place to work,” McCarthy said. “I want the Office of State Fire Marshal to be an agency where employees are proud to work.”

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McCarthy said the office, which employs about 40 people, continues to struggle with vacancies and turnover, but the current schedule the office is using aims to minimize impacts on employees’ work-life balance. New staff assignments within human resources also have allowed the office to resolve issues around pay and salary steps, he said.

And the office is working to repair relationships with fire departments and has started a collaborative process to help communities identify risks for fires, accidents, drownings, medical events and other crises, reduce such risks and respond when they do occur.

McCarthy said the office is in compliance with the labor relations board order related to the 2022 complaint and that “to my knowledge we have not received any grievances pertaining to this matter.”

However, McCarthy said there have been seven grievances on other issues that have been brought forward since he took over as fire marshal, one of which is still outstanding.

Asked what barriers remain to resolving complaints about a hostile work environment, McCarthy said it will take time. “It is a process that is ongoing,” he said. “The supervisors are working constantly to coach our folks to pass this information on to employees so it does become a change of culture.”

Anderson, the executive director of the union, said there are actually three grievances pending with the fire marshal’s office related to vacation requests, discipline and other issues. In general, he said upper management has been unwilling to work on problems related to labor issues.

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“We just don’t get a response,” he said in an interview following Wednesday’s meeting. “There’s always an open door and they’re always willing to listen, but they don’t get back to us. There’s never a resolution unless we file a grievance.”

Lawmakers also asked McCarthy about some specific complaints they have heard about the fire marshal’s office.

SPECIFIC COMPLAINTS

Government Oversight Co-Chair Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, said there was an investigator who let McCarthy know he was leaving the office largely because of a certain lieutenant, whom Hickman did not name.

“He claims that he knows of other investigators who are simply waiting for something else to come up so they can get away from this office,” Hickman said. “Can you respond to that?”

McCarthy said he would be looking into the matter and that it did not come up in a discussion at the time the investigator resigned. “It is something that came, honestly, as a complete surprise from that person, but I will look into it,” he said.

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Anderson, meanwhile, said that complaint from the investigator is not isolated. “I think there are a lot of people that feel that way and aren’t willing to speak out,” he said.

He said he has had conversations with McCarthy and Sauschuck and is hoping the office and union can work together to resolve the outstanding issues. “I just think there’s a lot more they could be doing and am hoping in the future we will have that opportunity to get some middle ground,” Anderson said.

Sauschuck spoke in support of McCarthy and the changes the office has put in place under his leadership at the meeting Wednesday.

“He has been implementing change and doing the work that’s necessary to change cultures,” Sauschuck said. “I’ve been in atmospheres in the past where we changed cultures and changed schedules and did work with unions and we were successful. I feel ultimately we’re going to be successful here as well.”

Sauschuck in particular highlighted McCarthy’s personal response as fire marshal and head of the office to the scene of fatal fires, something he said hasn’t been done in decades. “To me, when I hear our fire marshal is actively responding to work with their investigators, that to me is showing that somebody gets it and they’re trying to get it right,” Sauschuck said.

He said there are still issues that need to be addressed, but they are on a smaller scale than previously.

“When we start addressing those issues it gets down to the operational, in the weeds, day-in and day-out issues we find all over state government and all over police departments around the state,” Sauschuck said. “There are going to be issues we need to continue to address and we’re committed to doing that and I do think we have the right team to do that.”

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