Decision To Lay Off Firefighters Not Subject To Bargaining

As of the end of 2004, the City of Richmond, California had seven fire stations. There was a fire engine at each of the stations and a fire truck at two of the stations, although one of the trucks was not regularly staffed. If a second truck company was needed, the engine at one of the stations would be taken out of service and the engine’s crew would then operate the second truck.

The Department had a policy that all seven of the engines and one of the trucks were to be fully staffed at all times. The trucks and engines each had three-person crews. The Department maintained a minimum of 24 fire suppression personnel on duty in each of the City’s seven fire stations at all times.

In the 2003-2004 fiscal year, the City was facing a severe financial crisis. In a meeting held on October 16, 2003, City officials met with union representatives to discuss a budget proposal that involved laying off 13 firefighters. Combining the layoffs with the anticipated retirements of six firefighters, there was a high likelihood the City would need to close one of the seven fire stations. The City later determined that, based on the actual number of retirements, it was necessary to lay off five additional firefighters, for a total of 18 firefighters to be laid off.

After the layoff notices were sent to affected personnel, the City met with Local 188 of the International Association of Fire Fighters to discuss the negotiable effects of the envisioned layoff. Though Local 188 identified some cost savings measures, the City concluded that the measures would not be sufficient to offset any of the planned layoffs.

By December 2003, the City had abandoned its proposal to permanently close one of the fire stations and instead proposed a new plan that would result in one of the fire stations being taken out of service on a rotating basis. On January 1, 2004, the City laid off 18 members of Local 188 and instituted rolling closures among three designated fire stations. Shift staffing levels of fire suppression personnel were reduced from 24 to 18 per shift.

Local 188 filed an unfair labor practice charge against the City with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB). Among other things, Local 188 alleged that the City had violated the state collective bargaining law by failing to “meet and confer” in good faith over the decision to reduce staffing levels, and by failing to comply with Local 188’s repeated requests for detailed information about the City’s financial condition.

The California Court of Appeals upheld PERB’s decision dismissing the complaint. The Court found that:
“PERB’s longstanding position has been that a public agency’s decision to terminate employees, based on lack of sufficient funds to support their continued employment, is a fundamental management concern which requires that such decisions be left to the employer’s prerogative. This general rule is consistent with state and federal precedent establishing that an employer may exercise its managerial prerogative to eliminate or reduce services and lay off employees free from the constraints of the bargaining process. Although the decision to lay off employees is not subject to collective bargaining, an employer does have an obligation to bargain over the effects of the non-negotiable layoff decision on both departing and remaining employees. Effects subject to bargaining include severance pay, seniority, and pensions, among other things.

“Local 188 goes to great lengths to clarify that its complaint concerns shift staffing levels rather than layoff decisions. The import of Local 188’s argument is that PERB would be required to issue a complaint in any firefighter layoff case in which it is alleged that the layoffs affect the workload and safety of the remaining firefighters. We disagree.

“As a practical matter, if we were to accept Local 188’s argument that workload and safety concerns associated with staffing levels dictate whether a layoff decision is negotiable, a layoff decision would almost always be subject to collective bargaining or, at a minimum, a public entity’s refusal to bargain would compel the issuance of an unfair labor complaint. Focusing on staffing levels would entirely undermine the rule that layoffs are not subject to negotiation. Rather, the focus should be on the layoffs and not the consequent reduction in the number of firefighters on duty per shift. Where shift staffing levels are reduced following layoffs motivated by economic concerns, it goes without saying that the decision primarily concerns issues within the managerial prerogative of the public entity.”

The Court seemed to indicate that where shift staffing levels might not be a mandatorily negotiable consequence of a layoff, changes in equipment staffing might well be: “It goes without saying that firefighters have an extremely dangerous job, and we do not mean to suggest that workload and safety issues are inconsequential when shift staffing levels are reduced. Nonetheless, changes in shift staffing plainly have a less significant impact upon workload and safety than changes in equipment staffing.”

International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 188 v. Public Employment Relations Board, 72 Cal.App.4th (Cal. App. 2009).

This article appears in the May 2009 issue