Posts Tagged Arbitrator backs union on minimum manning in Oak Lawn

Oak Lawn Fire Department news

Excerpts from the

The Oak Lawn Leaf has learned that the Village of Oak Lawn has offered the firefighter/paramedics a buyout of $5.3 million dollars in exchange for the union dropping the minimum manning provision from its contract. The $5.3 million dollars would apparently be split among the current firefighters and paramedics although details of how that money would be divided was not provided to the Oak Lawn Leaf by our sources, who asked that they not be identified.

Minimum manning has been a controversial sticking point between the union’s membership and the village manager who has pursued litigation in an attempt to rude the number of employees in the department.

The village board recently changed attorneys for negotiating the next labor contract with the firefighters in perhaps a sign that the village was considering an alternative strategy to the one that has been unsuccessful for almost a decade.

The village, which currently pays approximately two million dollars to the firefighters in overtime every year, would recoup the money through the elimination of overtime. The union has previously contended that the village’s failure to hire enough firefighters and paramedics has made the overtime necessary.

In January of 2017, only months before the mayoral election, Arbitrator Steven M. Bierig, issued a 195 page decision that found in favor of the union on minimum manning and six other issues, while finding in favor of the village on two issues and allowing the court to determine the final issue regarding out of state residency.

Despite the village arguing during the arbitration hearing that the minimum manning number was in excess of what is necessary to protect the village, the arbitrator applied three factors from case law to uphold the number. He said the minimum manning number has worked as intended. He noted that it was uncontested that the village has been fighting fires with 21 employees on a shift. The village argued that the number should be reduced to 19 members per shift and that the number was imminently reasonable. The village presented an expert witness who testified that the they could function with three rather than four per engine. The firefighter’s union countered the argument noting that the system of having 21 employees has worked well for the village’s safety.

The union contended evidence shows that by implementing the plan that the village requested would be counter intuitive. According to the union’s argument, “It would actually impede the ability of the village to effectively respond to fires.” The union also presented an expert witness who testified that four employees on an engine is far preferable to three in terms of fighting fires. 

As an example, the union noted that with four on an engine, one company can arrive at a fire and immediately begin to fight it. “If the village’s proposal was implemented, it would require two pieces of equipment in order to begin to fight a fire, which is not the most efficient approach to fire fighting. By having to rely more heavily on mutual aid, it places the citizens of the village in a vulnerable position in which, at times, it must rely upon the willingness of a neighboring community to assist. This is not feasible and should be rejected.”

The village’s argument that the change in minimum manning was a minor change was discarded by the arbitrator finding that the proposal to reduce the minimum manning number was a major modification.

The arbitrator referred to previous arbitration disputes between the parties and noted that Arbitrator Benn was confronted with the same issue in the prior case between these parties. Bierig wrote, “In rejecting the same issue, he held: The village seeks a sea change to the manning system – specifically, the ability to reduce minimum manning from four to three employees on an engine, i.e., a 25% reduction – when the system has been in place for 20 years and was formulated with the mutual intent ” … for purposes of efficient response to emergency situations and for reasons of employee safety… ” with a mandate that if those agreed upon levels are not met, ” … employees shall be hired back pursuant to Section 6.4. ‘Overtime Distribution’” as expressed in Section 7.9(a) of the Firefighter Agreement [emphasis added]. The village does not seek this sea change because the manning system is operationally broken. Rather, the village seeks this sea change because the manning system is costly. That is not a basis for an interest arbitrator to change such a safety provision as important as minimum manning. Where one party (here, the Union) seeks to maintain the status quo and there is no demonstration by the party seeking the change (here, the village) that the system is broken, that kind of change must come through the bargaining process.”

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Oak Lawn Fire Department news

Excerpts from the

Legislation that could turn the tide in Oak Lawn’s long-standing effort to reduce minimum manpower requirements for its fire department has again been introduced in the Illinois General Assembly.

Two identical bills introduced in the House this year — retreads of past bills that failed — would require arbitrators to give primary consideration to a municipality’s ability to fund proposals when resolving contract disputes.

Passage of a bill into law would breathe new life into Oak Lawn’s long-stated mission to reduce fire department shift staffing from 21 to 19 — a cost-cutting measure that officials say could save nearly $1 million annually on overtime without impacting public safety.

The village, unable to make headway with the firefighters union in its past two contract negotiations with the bargaining unit, has taken the issue to an interest arbitrator.

In both cases an arbitrator sided with the union, in favor of the status quo of 21 firefighters per shift.

“It is clear, based on the evidence presented, that the reason that the village wishes to reduce manning, is primarily economic, and not operational,” arbitrator Steven Bierig wrote in his Jan. 1 decision. “This is not a valid reason to obtain a breakthrough change in interest arbitration.”

When a municipality’s ability to pay for union proposals is not the primary concern, proponents of the bills argue, elected officials lose their sovereignty over the allocation of municipal finances.

An arbitrator may rule in favor of a union proposal under the premise that a city has the ability to raise taxes, dip into reserves or take out loans to pay for any cost increases, Oak Lawn Village Manager Larry Deetjen said. That is akin to stripping an elected body of its power to make the crucial fiscal decisions that should be its purview.

In January, Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, introduced HB797, which gives primary consideration to an employer’s financial ability to fund proposals based on existing available resources. Sosnowski said he supports reforms of the arbitration process that give decision-making control back to local authorities.

But the bill, stalled in a House subcommittee for the past month, has its detractors. At issue is the language of the amendment it makes to the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act.

The proposed amendment states that an arbitrator should not base his decision on an assumption that lines of credit or reserve funds are available or that the employer may or will receive or develop new sources of revenue or increase existing sources of revenue.

Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois, said that, as written, the bill would eliminate an arbitrator’s ability to perform a comprehensive assessment of any impasse in contract negotiations. Because an arbitrator would be required to primarily base his decision on a municipality’s “existing available resources,” elected officials could simply shift funds into reserve or lower revenue levels prior to entering arbitration to create the illusion of financial hardship where it doesn’t exist, Devaney said.

“This would allow a local unit of government prior to entering into collective bargaining, even if only on paper, to lower existing revenue sources,” he said. “Now that the law is changed, (an arbitrator) couldn’t consider what was previously done or what they might do in the future in terms of increasing revenue. They could only look at a snapshot of what exists today.”

He argues that the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act is not in need of a change. The law already compels arbitrators to consider a government’s financial state when rendering a decision, albeit not as the “primary consideration as the proposed bills would require.

Oak Lawn officials reject the assertion that arbitrators already seriously consider a municipality’s ability to pay and point to the village’s own case with its firefighters as a prime example.

Skyrocketing annual pension obligations, which have more than doubled since 2013 to $5.91 million, are the primary reason that Moody’s downgraded Oak Lawn’s credit rating in February, Deetjen said.

“If we were able to get this legislative change, and change the manning for the fire department, we would take those monies into the pension,” he said, noting he thinks passage of the proposed arbitration reform bill would likely result in a credit rating upgrade for the village.

thanks Dan

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Oak Lawn Fire Department news

Excerpts from the

Interest arbitration proceedings between the village of Oak Lawn and its firefighters union concluded this week, setting the stage for an independent arbitrator to rule on the parties’ longstanding collective bargaining dispute over minimum staffing levels.

Millions of taxpayer dollars hang on the arbitrator’s decision, which isn’t expected until November, but became a heated topic of debate among village trustees after one penned a rebuke of the mayor’s decision to continue her costly legal campaign against Oak Lawn’s Fire Department.

At issue currently is the village’s contention that it should be able to set minimum staffing levels at 19 firefighters per shift, down two from the 21-per-shift staffing minimum that an independent arbitrator in 2008 ruled the village must abide by, Oak Lawn officials said.

The dispute dates back to 2008, when the firefighters union filed a grievance against Oak Lawn after the village, as a belt-tightening measure, began staffing engines with three people, rather than four, as is stipulated in the contract.

A grievance arbitrator sided with the union and ordered the village to maintain a minimum manning level of 21 people per shift and provide $286,000 in back pay for the nine-plus months the village had reduced staffing below that number, village officials said.

As a result, the village returned minimum staffing to 21 per shift and, after losing an appeal of the arbitrator’s decision, paid out the allotted sum.

The union later filed a compliance petition, arguing that the village had not complied with the minimum staffing provisions in the contract. The Illinois Labor Relations Board initially found in favor of the union and last year awarded them more than $3 million in back pay and accrued interest, but that decision was later reversed on appeal.

Oak Lawn has argued separately, and thus far unsuccessfully, that minimum staffing levels at the fire department should be a management prerogative that is not subject to collective bargaining. As a result, both sides have repeatedly come to loggerheads when negotiating labor contracts in recent years.

“It’s our contention that that is an inherent right in Illinois and that the decision on how to staff and what level to staff and how to deploy is a right of management, the governing body,” said village manager Larry Deetjen, who along with Fire Chief George Sheets, Mayor Sandra Bury and all but one member of the board, argue that the fire department can operate safely and effectively with fewer members working per shift and in so doing, save the village a significant amount in overtime costs.

The collective bargaining dispute first went to an interest arbitrator in 2014, who decided to leave staffing stipulations contained in the contract as is. When that contract expired at the end of 2014, the village brought the issue back to arbitration, where a new arbitrator will rule on it in the coming months.

In an editorial printed last month in multiple local publications, Trustee Bob Streit, the board’s lone consistent opposition voice, questioned Bury’s decision to continue expending taxpayer funds in the village’s years-long legal battle with the fire department over minimum staffing, while simultaneously supporting the recent settlement of a lawsuit filed by a former village employee to save taxpayers money by avoiding the expense of prolonged litigation.

“For more than three years you and the village manager instructed village attorneys to disregard court rulings and pursue … this legal battle with no concern for taxpayers in this instance,” wrote Streit, claiming that the village had spent more than $1 million in legal fees on the case.

“Actions speak louder than words, Mayor Bury, and your actions clearly communicate that you’re one of those politicians who say one thing and do another,” the letter continues. “You have completely ‘un-friended’ the taxpayers of Oak Lawn, and you owe each of us an explanation.”

Bury, who Wednesday issued a unified letter from the rest of the board in response to Streit’s allegations, said her explanation for fighting the litigation was simple. The economic stakes are simply too high not to continue the village’s legal fight with the fire department.

She said the $1 million figure Streit cited for legal fees expended was incorrect, and asserted the village actually had spent a combined $514,769 on all fire department legal matters since she took office in May 2013.

That taxpayer money, Bury said, had been put to good use.

She credits the village’s willingness to fight a 2015 Illinois Labor Relations Board ruling for saving Oak Lawn millions of dollars.

The board’s initial ruling, which ordered the village to pay firefighters $3.2 million for years of back pay and accrued interest, was reversed on appeal last summer. The firefighters union is now appealing that reversal before the Illinois Appellate Court.

Oak Lawn officials said the village stands to save an additional $937,000 in overtime costs annually going forward if it prevails in its current arbitration with the department over minimum staffing requirements.

She accused Streit, who initially supported fighting the firefighters union on the staffing issue, of playing politics.

Streit defended his $1 million figure, stating that the legal fees came up during finance committee meetings held during the budget process last year.

Streit acknowledged that while the most recent court rulings have favored the village, he expects those will be reversed on appeal, and that Oak Lawn will be on the hook for the more than $3 million that Bury asserts she’s saved taxpayers.

He said he initially went along with Deetjen’s recommendation to defend the village against the union’s grievance, but changed his mind after multiple legal setbacks.

“I respect the opinion of the court,” said Streit, who also said he believes the village should long ago have worked out a negotiated settlement with the union rather than fight a protracted legal battle. “When the court ruled in favor of the firefighters, it was time to stop fighting, for sure.”

Rather than reduce staffing levels, Streit contends that the village needs to hire more firefighters and called the 30 percent reduction in fire department personnel over the last 20 years “an assault on public safety.”

Village officials responded that hiring additional firefighters was neither necessary from a safety standpoint nor fiscally responsible.

According to an analysis performed by Oak Lawn’s finance director, the gross lifetime cost of hiring a firefighter at age 22 who goes on to work for 30 years, retires and lives another 30 years post-retirement is approximately $7.5 million. For that reason, it’s actually more cost-effective to pay firefighters nearly $3 million in overtime annually than hire more workers, officials said.

Bury, in her rebuttal to Streit, wrote that she just wants Oak Lawn’s fire department minimum staffing levels to align with those of the communities where the majority of its firefighters live.

“This Administration’s position is simple,” she wrote. “If it is safe and effective for those fire departments, then it can be safe and effective for Oak Lawn.”

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Editorial on Oak Lawn village leadership

An editorial at the

What kind of mistake would get you fired at work?

Most of us would say that if we caused our company to lose millions of dollars, we probably would be checking out the furnishings at the unemployment office. Perhaps, if we are related to the owner, we would just get moved from the corner office to the basement.

But, if you work for Oak Lawn in a top management spot and earn $200,000 a year in salary and benefits, you apparently don’t have to worry about mistakes that cost your bosses millions of dollars.

You see, Village Manager Larry Deetjen has cost the taxpayers $3.2 million dollars by starting and then continuing a fight with the Oak Lawn firefighters’ union over the issue of minimum manning. The village, which Deetjen was hired to serve as its top administrator, chose to violate a binding collectively bargained contract.

If you think you’ve heard that story before, you have, because this isn’t the first union contract that Deetjen summarily chose to ignore. He cost the village a couple of hundred thousand when he fired 20 union 911 dispatchers and the union filed an unfair labor practice charge. Oh well, it’s only money.

Of course it isn’t Deetjen’s money that he’s losing. He’s losing the taxpayers’ hard earned money. The taxpayers are the people who Mayor Sandra Bury and even Deetjen himself claim that they are protecting in their never ending battle with the firefighters.

Arbitrators and judges have told Deetjen and the Village Board that Deetjen’s strategy is WRONG. Yet, the Village Board continues to support running into the fire caused by Deetjen.

One Trustee, Robert Streit (Dist. 3) long ago abandoned Deetjen’s plan and has argued vehemently that his fellow board members should be asking questions instead of blinding nodding their heads “yes” like bobblehead dolls.

Bury and her allies counter the argument by blaming the union members and saying that they are protecting the taxpayers from bad decisions by the court. The problem with that argument is that the bad decisions were made by Deetjen.

Deetjen implies that the board shouldn’t have to listen to the judges and arbitrators because they aren’t Oak Lawn taxpayers or village board members. The seven arbitrators and judges who have ruled against the village were merely following the law. After seven losses in court, even the thickest skull on the village board should be able to realize that the village’s position is contrary to Illinois law.

Unfortunately, the taxpayers can’t vote Larry Deetjen out of office. He’s appointed and serves at the pleasure of the mayor and board of trustees.

Deetjen is fond of comparing public employees to the private sector, but in the private sector you don’t get away with wasting $3.2 million dollars. In fact, if he was running a private company, such a loss might cause the company to go bankrupt. But then again, it isn’t Deetjen’s money or the board members’ money. The loss falls squarely on the taxpayers and Mayor Bury acknowledges that the board may have to institute a special tax levy to pay for the mistake.

Yet, Deetjen recently told the Board of Trustees that his strategy was fiscally prudent. The board members’ heads bobbled up and down in blind agreement.

If you were to include the settlements with the dispatchers and the legal fees to pay a handful of law firms he has hand-picked, the number is closer to $4 million dollars.

Larry Deetjen should be held accountable for the loss of $4 million dollars. Perhaps, like attorneys, doctors and engineers, he has professional malpractice insurance. If so, the village should look into making a claim in order to protect the taxpayers.

Deetjen’s financial mistakes are adding up and it is time that the board take action and dismiss him as the village manager.

Voters can do their part too. Ask the candidates if they support retaining Larry Deetjen as the nanager. If a candidate says yes, you can eliminate that candidate from consideration. The village manager already has enough “yes” men.

thanks Dan

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Oak Lawn blames firefighters … for everything

The Oak Lawn Leaf has an article with a video clip about the Village of Oak Lawn blaming fire firefighters for more service cuts:

The Oak Lawn Leaf has learned exclusively that the Village of Oak Lawn’s administration has notified the Local 150 Public Works bargaining unit that it intends to reduce the workforce by as many as six employees after the village lost another battle with the local firefighters’ collective bargaining unit.

According to sources within the Local 150 workforce, the village administration is not only notifying the public works department members of its intentions, it is placing the blame for the cuts on the firefighters’ refusal to abandon the minimum manning provision in [their] contract that has been upheld multiple times in various courts in the last three years.

As a result of those losses in court, the Village of Oak Lawn is facing the reality of having to pay as much as two million dollars in back wages to the firefighters.

Village Manager Larry Deetjen is reportedly “livid” that the village is facing the prospect of paying the back pay but he is not only avoiding any blame for the decisions that have led to the judgment amount but he’s actually blaming the firefighters.

It is exactly the same strategy used by Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury, who in March, laid all of the perceived budget problems of the village at the feet of the fire department in a videotaped message for the Illinois Municipal League in which she lobbied against legislation that did not even concern Oak Lawn’s minimum manning contract provision.

Bury claimed that the minimum manning provision has been “devastating to our budget” arguing that the village spends two million dollars on fire department overtime because of the minimum manning standard.  The Oak Lawn Firefighters Union has argued in the past that the overtime is related to the village’s decision to reduce the number of firemen and paramedics from over 100 to 72.

While Oak Lawn is subject to the minimum manning language by contract, Bury chose to tape the message urging the defeat of the bill claiming in her message that “minimum manning is forcing cuts in public works, telecommunications, the police department and administrative staff”.

At the time, it was widely understood that Bury was referring to last year’s budget which witnessed the outsourcing of the 911 emergency dispatch services and significant cuts in the police department personnel and public works services.  Last winter, residents complained about the lack of snow plowing and salting of the village’s streets.

Trustee Robert Streit, who has consistently battled for increased public safety measures and for maintaining public works services, reacted quickly to the news that the administration is blaming the firefighters for the threatened cuts in public works. “It is ridiculous that the administration is telling the public works union that their failure to staff the fire department and their failure to manage the resources was caused by the firefighters and not their own mismanagement.”    He called the idea of pitting employees in one department against another a “morale killer.”  Streit said that he asked the mayor and his fellow trustees to negotiate with the fire department union rather than continuing the lawsuits but his request was “ignored.”

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Arbitrator backs union on minimum manning in Oak Lawn

An article in the about an arbitrator’s decision on minimum manning in Oak Lawn:

On July 7, 2014, an interest arbitrator issued a 113 page opinion, which once again supports the firefighters’ union’s position regarding minimum manning and rejected the efforts of the village administration to reduce the number of firefighters on an engine from four to three.

According to the opinion, which was released to the Oak Lawn Leaf, the firefighters supported keeping the “minimum manning contract language” the same while the village agreed with the daily shift of 21 employees, it sought to add language stating that would have allowed the village to staff only three firefighters to an engine if staffing fell below 21 daily employees, “for any reason”.   Theoretically, the language would have allowed the village to layoff more firefighters and then unilaterally reduce the number of firefighters on each engine or in the ALS or BLS ambulance.

The language was rejected by the union, which has battled over the issue of minimum manning and had to file an unfair labor practice. The Illinois Labor Relations Board ruled against the village and that decision was upheld by the Illinois Appellate Court in 2011.  Based on that ruling the parties were required to bargain over the issue of minimum manning and submit the matter to binding interest arbitration if they fail to reach an agreement.   The July 7th decision is the result of that process.

Village Manager Larry Deetjen, Mayor Sandra Bury and her board majority have long supported reducing the number of firefighters on engines and paramedics in ambulances. 

In the interest arbitration decision, the arbitrator made a “bench ruling” on the minimum manning issue because the “Village’s showing fell so far short of the showing required to change the status quo…”.

The arbitrator noted that the contract between the parties contained a mutual acknowledgement that “minimum manning is about safety for the public and the employees” and noted that the village now wants to argue that the real issue is costs while ignoring the previous acknowledgement that minimum manning is necessary for safety.

In order to change the “status quo” of an agreement, the entity seeking the change must show that the system is broken.  The village claimed that the system is to costly and therefore “broken” but the arbitrator rejected that opinion noting that the village’s own expert witness said that the use of four firefighters to an engine is not a hindrance. The arbitrator rejected the argument of the village noting that the change suggested by the village would have to come through the bargaining process.

Earlier this year, Trustee Robert Streit (Dist. 3) denounced Mayor Sandra Bury’s attacks on the firefighters and the minimum manning provision.  He noted that the village was told its position was wrong in 2011 and chose to continue to fight the issue, making it virtually impossible to negotiate any issues with the firefighters union.

Bury has claimed that the minimum manning provision has been “devastating to our budget” arguing that the village spends two million dollars on fire department overtime because of the minimum manning standard.  The Oak Lawn Firefighters Union has argued in the past that the overtime is related to the village’s decision to reduce the number of firemen and paramedics from  over 100 to 72 thereby creating the overtime crisis.  

Bury chose to tape the message urging the defeat of legislation in the Spring Session, claiming in her message that “minimum manning is forcing cuts in public works, telecommunications, the police department and administrative staff”.  Streit said that the decision to videotape that message sends the wrong message to the public and the fire department.  The General Assembly rejected Bury’s position and the bill.

Bury called minimum manning a “job killer” because other departments will lose jobs due to increased spending for the fire department.  That same argument was put forth before the arbitrator who declined to remove the minimum manning issue noting that the village has to make whatever managerial decisions it chooses to make while maintaining “minimum manning”.  

A review of the village’s budgets for the last ten years, however, indicates that the spending on the fire department has been historically between 20% and 26% of the total budget.  This year’s budget has the figure estimated at 23% of the total budget.   In contrast, spending on legal services has tripled.  

thanks Dan

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