Fire Chief’s Threatening Memo Is ULP

A minimum staffing clause in the contract between Penn Township, Pennsylvania and the Greater Hanover Professional Association of Firefighters, Local 2045 requires that there be four firefighters on duty per shift. Jeffry Parks has been employed as a firefighter for the Township for approximately 15 years. He has also been the vice president of Local 2045 for over three years. On October 7, 2014, Parks began working a 24-hour shift at 7:00 a.m.

During his shift, Parks responded to a suspicious vehicle fire in the afternoon. At that time, the shift had fallen below the four-person minimum requirement set forth in the CBA. However, the fire captain was at a training exercise in another location and was considered on duty according to the terms of the CBA.

The Fire Chief is the lead investigator for all fires in the Township and has the authority to impound a vehicle if further inquiry is needed. Parks had Chief Jan Cromer paged after responding to the vehicle fire on October 7, 2014 due to the suspicious nature of the fire. When the Chief showed up, he asked Parks where the captain was and Parks replied that the captain was at training.

During shift change at 7:00 a.m. on October 8, 2014, where there is typically an exchange of information between the outgoing and incoming shifts, the Chief asked Parks why they were below the minimum manning requirement during the vehicle fire call the day before. The Chief also asked why Local 2045 allowed this to happen on some occasions, but not others. Parks attempted to explain the reason, and he and the Chief had a verbal exchange. The Chief indicated that he was not pleased about being below the minimum manning requirement on the day before, and Parks responded there was no contract violation, but he could file a grievance if the Chief would like.

Shortly after the verbal exchange, the Chief issued a memorandum to Parks which provided in relevant part as follows: “Today at shift change I asked a question regarding being below minimum manning as outlined in the contract. I specifically asked who allowed this as (sic) why sometimes we can go below and sometimes we can’t. I asked this as I only allowed us to go below minimum manning for training if the firefighter was within reasonable distance to respond to a working fire. You asked me why I had to be so smart asking a question. I replied I was not being smart and I have the right as Department Chief to ask any question I wish regarding firefighting. You than (sic) stated we can file a grievance right now. The discussion turned quite negative. You also all but questioned me that I was not telling the truth when I said I was unaware this was happening.

“Unfortunately there were several other firefighters and EMTs present at the time. I did apologize to those that I could remember being present. My apology was not based on the question but the response and continuance of the discussion in front of them when I should possibly had (sic) spoken to you in private. Putting this in perspective I will apologize to you for not continuing this discussion in private but will not apologize for my questioning. I also will inform you that your response both to the being smart (sic) and threatening a grievance was disrespectful towards me in front of other employees and will not be tolerated in the future.”

Local 2045 filed an unfair labor practice against the Township, alleging that the Chief’s memorandum was designed to intimidate, coerce and restrain employees in the exercise of their protected rights. An administrative law judge for Pennsylvania’s Labor Relations Board agreed with Local 2045.

The ALJ found that “Parks did not refer to the Chief in a derogatory or disrespectful manner, use profanity, or threaten the Chief with anything other than a grievance during their verbal exchange. Likewise, the record also shows that the Chief warned Parks that ‘threatening a grievance…will not be tolerated in the future.’ This reflects an unequivocal warning that bargaining unit members proceed at their own peril if they indicate an intent to file a grievance in the future. This would clearly have a tendency to coerce employees in the exercise of their statutory right to present grievances to their employer.”

By way of remedy, the ALJ ordered the Township to immediately remove the memorandum from all files, and to post in the workplace the finding that it had committed an unfair labor practice.

Greater Hanover Professional Firefighters Association Local 2045 v. Penn Township, 47 PPER ¶ 25 (Pa. LRB ALJ 2015).