Judge rules against firefighters' union in sick time policy

The judge ruled the city can keep intact a new policy that does not allow firefighters to be brought into work when others call in sick

By Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — A state Supreme Court judge has ruled against issuing a preliminary injunction that would block the city from a new policy that prohibits firefighters from being called in to work when their colleagues call in sick.

In a decision issued Wednesday, Judge James P. McClusky ruled the city can keep intact, at least for now, a new policy that does not allow firefighters to be brought into work when others call in sick.

Judge McClusky heard oral arguments from attorneys representing both sides last week. The case is expected to eventually be decided by an arbitrator.

Daniel Daugherty, president of the Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191, said Judge McClusky's decision is the first win for the city involving a three-year contract dispute with the bargaining unit.

"It's definitely a win for the city but not the end of the issue," he said.

The firefighters association had sought an injunction to block the policy's implementation, a move that City Manager Sharon A. Addison admitted violates the union contract. The union promptly filed a grievance.

"The city is pleased with Judge McClusky's decision," Ms. Addison said.

The city and the firefighters' union are in the midst of a bitter contract dispute. The new practice of "not backfilling" sick firefighters began on Nov. 12.

The contract dispute's main sticking point remains the issue involving the "minimum manning" stipulation that 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times.

Under the new policy, firefighters are not to be called in to work as long as there are 13 of their colleagues on duty. In November, the City Council decided in executive session to establish the new policy.

The union contended it's unsafe for both firefighters and the public if fewer than 15 firefighters are working.

But Judge McClusky ruled that firefighters failed to prove that argument. Instead, the union speculated there are inherent dangers under the new policy.

Even though he did not grant the injunction, the union's concerns about the loss of wages from "understaffed" shifts caused by the policy can still be decided by an arbitrator, the judge concluded.

"The grievance acknowledges there is pecuniary recovery possible so denial of this preliminary injunction does not render any potential arbitration ineffectual," the judge wrote in his decision.

Judge McClusky also concluded that the city's case is similar to a 2010 court case between the village of Johnson City and its firefighters' union.

As with Watertown, Johnson City's situation involved an arbitration case, sick leave, overtime, grievances filed by the union and a requisite number of firefighters who were required to be on duty at all times. The judge saw similarities in Watertown's minimum manning clause and Johnson City's issue regarding a no-layoff clause.

The city took the measure to cut down on overtime associated with sick time. Last year, the cost of fire department sick time reached $178,000, and $650,000 in overtime expenses associated with firefighters calling in sick, according to city officials.

Terry O'Neil, the attorney representing the city in the contract dispute, contended in court last week that the most recent contract did not contain any language about safety in the minimum manning clause. He argued that minimal manning was about job security.

According to the petition, the city violated the collective bargaining agreement by unilaterally reducing minimum staffing of the fire department from the required 15 bargaining unit members to 13.

To get to 13 firefighters, the fire department's rescue truck was taken off the road.

While this was the first win for the city, several aspects of the contract dispute are pending, including a decision on whether a new collective bargaining agreement should be decided in arbitration.

The city manager denied it was the city's first win, saying that the union lost a decision to fill a position of a retired captain.

On Dec. 5, the union filed a demand for arbitration on the sick time issue.

Copyright 2017 Watertown Daily Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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