Firefighters' union tries to block new sick time policy

The city council decided to establish a new policy that will not allow firefighters to be brought into work when others call in sick

By Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — The firefighters’ union is seeking an injunction in state Supreme Court to block the city from a new policy that prohibits firefighters from being called into work when their colleagues call in sick.

The City Council last week decided in executive session to establish a new policy that will not allow firefighters to be brought into work when others call in sick, a move that City Manager Sharon A. Addison admitted violates the union contract. The union promptly filed a grievance.

The city and the union are in the midst of a bitter three-year contract dispute. The new practice of “not backfilling” sick firefighters began Sunday.

But attorneys for the Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191 filed court papers seeking the injunction on Monday afternoon. The union also filed a request for a temporary restraining order forbidding the city from violating its collective bargaining agreement in respect to minimum manning.

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. The city contends the stipulation causes the department to be overstaffed, while the union maintains that changing it would be unsafe.

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

In further violation, the city improperly discontinued regular operation and staffing of the department’s rescue truck, an essential component of the department’s fire and rescue services, the union claims.

According to the collective bargaining agreement, the rescue truck must be operated at all times by a minimum of two firefighters.

“This unilateral act is not only a violation of the agreement, but gravely endangers the lives and safety of bargaining unit members and citizens of Watertown, whom the firefighters are sworn to protect,” according to the court papers.

The firefighters are claiming that this “extremely unsafe and hazardous situation cannot exist pending resolution of the grievance by arbitration” because it could, “given the city’s prior litigation tactics, take years to achieve,” the court papers said.

Someone apparently showed their frustration over the weekend when signs were placed in the two front windows of the rescue truck with the message, “Rescue Closed.” A photo of the truck with the signs was posted on the Facebook page of the Watertown Firefighters Benevolent Association.

The city manager has asked Fire Chief Dale C. Herman to find the people responsible for the signs, he said Monday. So far, he doesn’t know who did it but plans to continue to work on it.

Meanwhile, state Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky did not grant the temporary restraining order, but set a hearing on the injunction for Dec. 6.

Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. said Monday afternoon that he was not aware that the bargaining unit filed the injunction.

“They’re going to do what they think they have to do to defend themselves,” the mayor said. “They’re the all powerful union.”

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, city officials said last week.

With the directive going into effect, the daily staffing level cannot fall below 13 firefighters. They will be called into work if it falls below that number.

Two newly-elected council members, Lisa A. Ruggiero and Ryan Henry-Wilkinson, have said they plan to rescind the directive by City Manager Sharon A. Addison to cut off the sick time.

They are also particularly upset, citing their belief that voters overwhelmingly elected them into office because they want the city to back off from a hard-line approach regarding the ongoing contract dispute with the firefighters’ union.

The contract talks between the two sides became increasingly bitter after eight captains were demoted to firefighters in July 2016.

Copyright 2017 Watertown Daily Times

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