Police Union Says Arbitration Award Unfair, ‘Compromised’

An arbitrator has handed down a contract award to Pittsburgh police that the city characterized as fair but the union derided as a product of a flawed process that might be appealed.

“The FOP clearly lost its case, and the city won astronomically,” Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge 1 President Robert Swartzwelder said Friday morning, vowing to appeal or seek to reopen the contract. “We did horribly. The award is compromised.”

Mayor Bill Peduto countered that the union “said the priorities were salaries, pension, benefits, longevity [pay],” rather than setting one, main goal. “… And there’s only so much money to spread around when you have so many priorities.”

The award affects roughly 980 city police from rookies to lieutenants, and covers the years 2019 through 2022.

They will get retroactive pay raises for 2019, including a 1% raise effective Jan. 1 of that year, another 1% effective April 1, and 2% effective July 1. Officer Swartzwelder said he believed the raises were phased in to benefit the city, not the officers, who will only get modest amounts of back pay for the many hours of overtime they worked in connection with the trial of former East Pittsburgh Officer Michael Rosfeld, and subsequent protests.

Similarly, this year officers are awarded a 2% bump effective Jan. 1 and another 2% effective July 1, he said. In 2021 and 2022, they are entitled to 3% raises on Jan. 1 and 1% at mid-year.

“This arbitrator manipulates the raises in such a way that the officers don’t realize the [full] benefit of the raise until the end of the year,” said Officer Swartzwelder. City firefighters and medics, by contrast, “got their raises all up front.”

Mr. Peduto focused on the big picture. “Over the course of these next four years, the police salaries will increase 16%,” he said.

Officer Swartzwelder said that master police officer pay in the last year of the contract will be around $78,000, while some suburban departments pay less experienced officers more than $90,000.

Mr. Peduto said he might have been able to give police bigger raises if the union had settled in negotiations, rather than going to arbitration.

“Now they’re saying the salary was the major concern,” the mayor said. “We could’ve had a different arrangement and agreement, but that was not what was presented to the arbitrator.”

City officers will get increases in their longevity pay, but only if they remain with the city for 25 years or more — something Officer Swartzwelder believes will become less and less common.

Younger officers, he said, will conclude: “If there’s an opportunity in Ross, I’m going right over there.”

A panel of three arbitrators — one appointed by the city, one by the union, and a neutral — heard both sides during 10 arbitration sessions early last year. The neutral arbitrator, Robert Creo, essentially decided the award, which the city-arbitrator is expected to co-sign, while the union arbitrator will likely dissent.

Officer Swartzwelder said that he believes that Mr. Creo sought to limit the award according to an artificial cap proposed by the city, whose budget officials said in arbitration hearings that “there’s $27 million in the budget for the [police] bargaining unit, that’s all there is,” to cover all economic enhancements over the life of the contract.

Mr. Creo “kept saying this during the bargaining sessions: I have a number in mind. I said, ‘You’re not allowed to do that,’” said Officer Swartzwelder. When the city was in distressed status under Act 47, arbitrators were required to stay within the constraints of a recovery plan. But that status was lifted in 2018.

The award, he said, “pretty much adds up to $27 million” in increases over its duration.

Officer Swartzwelder said that Mr. Creo asked the FOP to put all of its positions in writing, and then shared them with the city, but did not similarly share the city’s written positions with the union. “I never saw one thing the city wrote.”

He said that Mr. Creo also met privately with top city officials. He said the arbitrator “is compromised.”

Mr. Creo wrote in response to an inquiry that his role precludes him from commenting.

“Ex parte meetings between the city and the neutral arbitrator occurred during the writing of the award,” confirmed mayoral spokesman Timothy McNulty, “… but far more ex parte meetings were held between the FOP and the arbitrator. In no way were there any irregularities in this proceeding.”

The FOP head also said that police will pay more for health insurance, and get less in pensions, than the city’s firefighters and medics.

Mr. Peduto said that the FOP leadership was cherrypicking from other contracts without taking into account that those unions compromised on other planks.

Under the award, city police will get increases in the rates paid to them for secondary employment, which is covered by private entities like bars, event organizers and construction companies that call on off-duty officers for security services.

“There has never been a time when I have ever done something that would harm our police officers, and I never would,” said Mr. Peduto. “What I want as a liberal is to be able to treat my workers the best that I possibly can.”

He continued: “We’ve spent more on improving the quality of life of each of our officers, the equipment that they use, the buildings that they work in, the number of officers that are there, and now a 16% pay raise” and other benefits.

Mr. Peduto and council will likely have to modestly revise the $608 million operating budget for 2020, which now includes $64.5 million for police pay.

During the city’s 14 years of state oversight, which ended last year, arbitrators were legally required to stay within the limits of plans that generally held raises to a few percentage points.

Since then, firefighters won, in arbitration, an 8% raise in the first year of a new contract, which added nearly $4 million to expenses. The city had to eliminate several vacant positions, Mr. Peduto said.

City medics a year ago got a negotiated 17% base pay raise in the first year, though it was accompanied by measures to reduce the amount of overtime they received.

Mr. Peduto has said that nonunion police-related salaries would have to be increased commensurate with union pay, to preserve some incentive to pursue promotions.

Since the city went into distressed status under Act 47 in 2004, police officer salary has not kept pace with inflation — especially for experienced officers.

The city’s 2004 budget — the last crafted prior to the start of state oversight — set master officer pay at $53,954.

A plurality of the bureau is now made up of master officers. Last year, according to Officer Swartzwelder, master officers made base pay of $66,747.

According to the inflation calculator on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, if master officer base pay had kept pace with inflation, it would be $74,931.

The budget approved by city council on Dec. 17 included 900 police positions, and called for master officer base pay of $70,812.

Pittsburgh’s budget for this year — which does not yet include the arbitration award — put rookie officer base salary around $47,000.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in its 2018 series Patchwork Policing reported that police pay varies widely across Allegheny County’s 109 departments. The lowest-paid full-time officers in Whitehall, for instance, made around $71,000; South Fayette $69,000; Penn Hills $68,000; Bethel Park $64,000; and Mt. Lebanon $63,000.

Part-time officers in many hard-pressed municipalities, though, make less than $15 an hour, often resulting in chronic staff shortages.

Separately, the city on Friday inked a new contract with the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, which represents 40 white collar workers.

Those employees will get 3% wage increases in each of the five years of the contract, which runs through 2024. They will see no increase in their contributions to health insurance, and will get better disability benefits, according to a summary released by the city.

From www.post-gazette.com

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