Fire department cuts shift staffing after court rejects union complaint
The ruling denies the union's motion for a preliminary injunction regarding the shift staffing changes, which were the result of cuts to the city's 2018 budget
By Mike Danahey
ELGIN, Ill. — Elgin Fire Department shift staffing cuts took effect Thursday following a court ruling against the Elgin Association of Firefighters Local 430, which claimed the changes would put first-responders at risk of injury.
"The city implemented the shift staffing changes immediately, beginning with the shift Thursday at 7 a.m.," Elgin Corporate Counsel William Cogley said.
Judge David Akemann issued an order ruling in the city's favor late Wednesday afternoon, court records show. The ruling denies the 130-member fire union's motion for a preliminary injunction regarding the shift staffing changes, which were the result of cuts to the city's 2018 budget. Akemann also canceled a court hearing on the matter scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
"We're disappointed by the timing of the ruling. We expected to be in court Thursday to present more information," union president Joe Galli said. Galli said he and union vice president Ed Hanson had already testified Jan. 3 and 4.
In the complaint, the union argued, "If the city reduces shift staffing, the union predicts that the number of injuries will increase significantly."
Akemann wrote that the union had not shown "irreparable injury that would necessitate the intervention of this Court."
The lawsuit followed the Elgin City Council's Dec. 20 approval of a $259 million budget. The budget includes $700,000 in cuts to fire department overtime by reducing two positions per shift, from 33 firefighters and a battalion chief to 31 firefighters and a battalion chief required to fill positions. The proposal does not include staff cuts but restructures how firefighters are deployed for service calls, according to the budget document.
It reduces the number of shift positions from six to five at Station 1 on the east side and has Station 2 on the northwest side operate a "refined jump company." It calls for an increase in the availability of ambulances, the overwhelming majority of fire department activity, according to the budget document.
The union filed its case Dec. 22 and staffing levels remained as they were until Thursday. Elgin uses a staffing model that relies on overtime to fill Fire Department shifts to limit costs such as insurance and pension benefits.
Thursday, Galli reiterated that the union's main concern is safety of firefighters and the city.
The union contends the overtime model has created issues, including an increase in injuries and firefighter burnout, and is not a sustainable way to staff the department. Mayor Dave Kaptain has called for holding a public discussion sometime early this year about the viability of filling so many fire department shifts with overtime.
Cogley has said the city is at least as concerned about safety as the union is, and the issue was about money and protection of getting overtime hours.
The union's contract ended Dec. 31, and Galli said he had hoped the staffing issues and contract talks could have been addressed already.
Galli said that on Dec. 21 the union received a letter from the city informing that the shift restructuring was set to go into effect Dec. 27. So, following procedure outlined in its contract, the union filed a grievance, first with the assistant fire chief.
With that grievance denied, Galli said the matter is now before Fire Chief Dave Schmidt. A "no" from Schmidt would bring the matter to the City Manager Rick Kozal, then to arbitration.
Galli said that firefighters will be learning how to adapt to the changes as they go along.
"It's a little bit frightening, but we're keeping our fingers crossed nothing bad happens," Galli said.
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