Proposal For 24-Hour Shifts Subject To Arbitration

When the Town of Bellingham, Massachusetts and Local 2071 of the International Association of Fire Fighters were unable to agree on the work shifts for employees, the issue was submitted to binding arbitration as the last step in the bargaining process. The existing schedule, known as the 10-14 schedule, called for firefighters to work two 10-hour days, followed by two 14-hour days, followed by four days off.

While Local 2071’s proposal did not alter the number of hours firefighters worked per year, the proposal called for firefighters to work a 24-hour day. The Town proposed the continuation of the 10-14 schedule, and argued that the length of the workday and work schedules in general were a management right.

The arbitration panel consisted of one management representative, one labor representative, and one neutral member. The Panel unanimously agreed with Local 2071’s proposal. The Panel concluded that “work shifts structure and define hours of work and are an implicit component of hours of work. Consequently, it is the Panel’s opinion that it has the authority to issue an award of the 24-four hour shift as just another structure of the hours of work.”

The Panel went on to find that 11 of 12 comparable communities had implemented 24-hour firefighting shifts. It also rejected the Town’s “primary contention that a 24-hour shift would present a significant public safety risk due to firefighter fatigue because as in all firefighter shifts, there is ‘down-time’ during which firefighters are not physically taxed. Moreover, Town firefighters currently work a 24-hour shift on a periodic basis with no identified problems.”

The Town challenged the Panel’s decision through the court system, arguing primarily that the issue of work schedules was not subject to binding arbitration. The Appeals Court of Massachusetts rejected the Town’s arguments, and upheld the Panel’s decision.

The Court found that shift structure was within the plain meaning of mandatorily negotiable hours of work. The Town argued that the collective bargaining law expressly excluded from arbitration “assignments,” and that the exclusion of “assignments” encompassed shifts. The Court demurred, finding “the shift proposal here does not determine who is assigned to which shift. Rather, it is limited to the hours of the shift. It also does not determine who is assigned to do what on the shift. Nothing in the shift proposal before us appears to limit the Fire Chief’s ability to make sure that the right people are in the right positions on the right shift.”

The Town also contended that the quality of the firefighter services would be affected by the move to 24-hour shifts, and that firefighters would become tired as they work a 24-hour shift and therefore would be less effective in performing their critical public safety duties. As a result, the Town argued, the decision to establish 24-hour shifts “must be reserved to the sole discretion of the public employer so as to preserve the intended role of the governmental agency and its accountability in the political process.”

Again, the Court was unconvinced. The Court pointed to the record before the Panel, reciting that the Panel “relied on submissions by the Union that established that 11 of 12 comparable communities have implemented 24-hour shifts, testimony that Bellingham firefighters currently work a 24-hour shift on a periodic basis with no identified problems, and its own understanding that on all firefighter shifts, there is down-time during which firefighters are not physically taxed, which is typically utilized by firefighters to replenish their physical stamina. In the record before the Panel, there was also information indicating that 24-hour shifts are common throughout the United States, and that other arbitrators addressing 24-hour shifts have not been persuaded that concerns about firefighter fatigue arising from such shifts were well founded.”

Local 2071, International Association Of Fire Fighters v. Town Of Bellingham, 854 N.E.2d 1005 (Mass. App. 2006).

This article appears in the January 2007 issue