Court upholds minimum staffing decision for Pa. firefighters
The union can negotiate the minimum number of firefighters on a shift, because it has a direct impact on safety
By Peter Hall
The Morning Call
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The state Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Allentown firefighters, finding that their union can negotiate the minimum number of firefighters on a shift because it has a direct impact on safety.
In a unanimous decision Tuesday that affects municipalities with professional fire departments across Pennsylvania, the court rejected Allentown's argument that shift staffing was an issue for managers to decide because of its impact on city finances.
The court found that the city had not presented convincing evidence that an arbitrator's award setting the minimum number of firefighters per shift at 25 unduly infringed on its managerial responsibilities.
"The testimony and documentary evidence from the arbitration proceedings ... clearly establishes an unambiguous and powerful link between shift staffing and firefighter health and safety," Justice Debra McCloskey Todd wrote for the court.
The city's claim that a minimum staffing requirement interferes with its management by driving up overtime and pension costs does not show an impact as direct as that on firefighter safety, Todd said. She noted that even with the minimum number of firefighters required to be on duty dictated by the contract, the city still controls the total number of firefighters employed.
"The city retains the ability to dictate the level of fire protection it provides to its citizens and continues to possess ultimate decision-making regarding budgetary matters," Todd wrote.
While the decision has little immediate impact in Allentown, where the current firefighters' contract remains in effect until 2020, it makes shift staffing a negotiable item for firefighters across the state.
The Bethlehem firefighters' contract expires at the end of this year. It does not include a mandatory minimum staffing requirement. The Easton firefighters' contract expired in December. It's unclear where negotiations stand on a new contract.
International Association of Fire Fighters Local 302 President Jeremy Warmkessel said the union members are pleased that the court recognized the link between shift staffing and safety, an issue that has long been a sticking point in contract negotiations.
Warmkessel said he's hopeful it will allow the union and the administration to settle on a number of firefighters per shift that will improve safety for both firefighters and residents.
Allentown solicitor Susan Ellis Wild said the city disagrees with the decision. She predicts that the ruling will have a negative impact on municipal budgets across the state.
Wild highlighted the court's observation that Act 111, which governs collective bargaining for police and firefighters in Pennsylvania, does not explicitly state which topics can be decided by an arbitrator. As a result, courts are required to make that determination in place of legislators.
"It is now time for the Legislature to finally take action to revise Act 111 to provide relief to municipalities," Wild said.
The union, which represents 122 city firefighters, went to the state Supreme Court to appeal last year's Commonwealth Court decision, in which a panel of judges sided with the city. The panel threw out a Lehigh County judge's ruling that upheld the arbitrator's award requiring 25 firefighters per shift after contract negotiations reached an impasse in 2011.
The requirement under the firefighters' previous contract to have 30 people on each shift and call in replacements for those who called out sick cost the city about $1 million a year in overtime, attorney John McLaughlin told the justices during arguments in September. That contributed to skyrocketing retirement costs because pensions are based on an employee's overall earnings, including overtime, the city contended.
Over the course of decades, Pennsylvania courts have examined what decisions regarding police and fire manpower can be made by arbitrators during contract negotiations and what are the exclusive realm of city administrators.
In her opinion, Todd noted "the courts have drawn a very fine line" between overall staffing levels, which are to be decided by managers, and the number of firefighters assigned to a piece of equipment or dispatched to a fire scene, which may be arbitrated because it affects firefighter safety.
Quintes Taglioli, attorney for the firefighters union, told the justices during his argument that the question before the Supreme Court is similar to one answered by a Commonwealth Court panel in 1983 when it upheld an arbitration award for Erie firefighters establishing the minimum number of crew members on each fire truck. He added that the city would keep control of the overall number of firefighters by using overtime or even employing volunteers. The justices agreed.
"Ultimately, we conclude that a minimum shift staffing mandate, given its direct and significant impact on firefighter health and safety, is simply not a managerial prerogative that should be insulated from the give-and-take of collective bargaining," Todd wrote.
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