OAK LAWN, IL – Oak Lawn is hailing a recent Illinois Appellate Court decision in its longstanding litigation over staffing with the village’s firefighters union as a significant victory for taxpayers.
On Aug. 12, the appellate court upheld a 2015 Illinois Labor Relations Board’s ruling that found Oak Lawn not liable for $3.2 million in back pay and accrued interest the union argued firefighters were owed because of the village’s alleged failure to comply with minimum staffing provisions in the contract.
“We are, of course, thrilled that the appellate court ruled in favor of the taxpayers and rejected the union’s efforts to win more than $3 million for work never performed,” Village Manager Larry Deetjen said in a statement.
The ruling marks the fourth time in the past 18 months the village has prevailed in its case with the firefighters union over minimum staffing, village officials said.
We’re giving away a family-sized chance to learn fun new things outside the classroom. Simply show us how your family learns together to be entered to win a $50 gift card!
While the union is legally entitled to ask the Illinois Supreme Court to take up the case, it does not appear likely to do so.
Oak Lawn Fire Department Lt. Vince Griffin, who heads the union, said Friday that he doesn’t believe the union will challenge the appellate court’s decision.
“We abide by the court’s ruling,” he said by phone. “We don’t agree with it, but we abide by it.”
Griffin also said it was “absolutely possible” that in the wake of its most recent legal setback, the union would drop a separate appeal of a grievance arbitrator’s decision about the same staffing issue.
If that occurs, it would effectively mark the end of the years-long legal battle over minimum manning grievances that the village and its firefighters have been waging since 2008.
In that year, 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 it 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, and should actually be staffing 22 people per shift. The Illinois Labor Relations Board initially found in favor of the union and last year awarded it more than $3 million in back pay and accrued interest, but that decision was later reversed on appeal.
This month’s appellate court decision was an affirmation of that reversal, and solidifies the minimum manning status quo at 21 per shift.
“I’m sure the village manager will tout it as a terrific victory and a great savings of money,” Griffin said of the court decision. “But if we continue on a downward trajectory of shift staffing, that is going to lead to a less safe work environment for the firefighters.
“And that can only equate to a not safe environment for the public.”
While the grievance aspect of the longstanding feud may have reached its conclusion, the battle over minimum manning requirements continues to impede contract negotiations between the village and its firefighters.
Oak Lawn has argued, thus far unsuccessfully, that minimum staffing levels at the Fire Department should be a management prerogative not subject to collective bargaining.
The village contends 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.
“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 Deetjen. He, along with Fire Chief George Sheets, Mayor Sandra Bury and all but one member of the Village Board, argue that the Fire Department can operate safely and effectively with fewer members working per shift, and in so doing, save the village in overtime costs.
Griffin disagrees, and called the proposed reduction in daily staffing “a real scary scenario.”
“If staffing is going down, down, down, which call is going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he said. “Is it a week from now? A month from now? At some point, that straw is going to break the camel’s back and I pray that our firefighters can overcome the situation. I pray that there’s not something terrible that happens because of a village manager that wants to decrease staffing.”
With neither side willing to budge on the minimum staffing issue, recent labor contracts have been adjudicated through an arbitration process.
In 2014, the first time the parties’ collective bargaining dispute went to an interest arbitrator, the arbitrator decided to leave staffing stipulations contained in the contract as is, maintaining the 21-per-shift status quo. When that contract expired at the end of 2014, the village brought the issue back to arbitration, where in the coming months a new arbitrator will rule on it.
If Oak Lawn prevails in the arbitration — a decision isn’t expected until November — it stands to save an additional $937,000 in overtime costs annually going forward, officials said.
From The Chicago Tribune