Firefighters On Injured Status Entitled To Accrue Vacation Leave

When an arbitrator construed the collective bargaining agreement between the City of Worcester, Massachusetts and Local 1009 of the International Association of Fire Fighters to allow firefighters on injured-on-duty (IOD) status to continue to accrue vacation leave, the City challenged the Arbitrator’s decision in the Massachusetts Court of Appeals. Rejecting the City’s argument that the Arbitrator pulled his decision “out of thin air,” the Court upheld the arbitration award.

The Arbitrator had found that there were some instances in the past where the City had paid accrued vacation leave to firefighters who had been on IOD status, as well as other instances in the same time period where the City had not paid accrued vacation leave. In view of this conflicting evidence, the Arbitrator concluded that there was no binding past practice. The Arbitrator then consulted the contract and, in particular, the provisions pertaining to vacation leave. He concluded that nothing contained therein suggested that firefighters on IOD would not accrue vacation leave. On the basis of this analysis, the Arbitrator determined that the City had violated the collective bargaining agreement by denying firefighters on IOD status the accrual of vacation leave, and directed the City to “make whole” those affected by the violation.

The essence of the City’s argument was that “in the absence of either an explicit term in the collective bargaining agreement providing for the accrual of vacation leave by firefighters on IOD, or a binding past practice of providing such benefits, the award exceeded the Arbitrator’s authority and cannot stand.” The Court disagreed. The Court observed that “this is not a case where the Arbitrator exceeded his authority by directing the City to engage in conduct that is contrary to law or in violation of a well-defined, dominant public policy. Nor is this a case where the Arbitrator exceeded the authority granted to him by the contract.

“Here, the award does not contravene any language in the agreement. Indeed, the difficulty confronted by the Arbitrator was that there was no language in the contract that spoke directly to the issue at hand. Furthermore, the City has not shown that the Arbitrator’s interpretation was substantially irrational or implausible. In any event, it is evident from the Arbitrator’s decision that he did not pull his decision out of thin air, as the City contends; rather, he looked to relevant provisions of the contract and the ordinances referenced therein to interpret the agreement. Thus, this case falls squarely within the usual rule that, when an arbitrator’s decision concerns construction of the contract, the Courts have no business overruling him, even if their own interpretation would be different.”

City of Worcester v. Local 1009, Intern. Ass’n of Firefighters, 951 N.E.2d 368 (Mass. App. 2011).

This article appears in the December 2011 issue.