State arbitrators “erred” when they neglected to consider Wilmington’s written proposal of a shift change for city firefighters, which never specified hours and instead gave broad discretion on scheduling to the fire chief, according to a recent Delaware Chancery Court decision.
During contract negotiations, Wilmington officials touted plans to reduce the number of days off after a 24-hour shift from three days to two, or 48 hours, aiming to reduce the need for overtime and rolling bypasses – the controversial practice of shutting down an engine to save on overtime costs. But the specified schedule was never part of the written contract proposal to city firefighters.
Vice Chancellor Paul Fioravanti Jr. wrote in a June 28 order that the state arbitrator “erred by performing her statutory analysis only on the unwritten ‘essence’ of the city’s” proposal.
Wilmington’s proposal provided for a platoon system and any shift schedule “that could be freely established and changed at the chief of fire’s sole discretion,” Fioravanti wrote. “The executive director instead performed the statutory analysis on a three-platoon, 24/48 schedule in contravention of …” the Police Officers’ and Firefighters’ Employment Relations Act.
The International Association of Firefighters Local 1590, the labor union representing more than 150 Wilmington firefighters, appealed a May 2020 Delaware Public Employees Relations Board decision that sided with the city’s proposed contract, which included shift changes. The union argued the city’s written proposal gave the fire chief extensive discretion to set platoon and shift structures, it did not merely establish a 24/48 schedule.
The board disagreed and upheld the earlier decision, prompting firefighters to appeal to the Chancery Court – the first court to rule in Wilmington firefighters’ favor in the yearslong battle for a new contract. Fioravanti’s decision reverses the arbitrator’s orders and sends the union and city attorneys back to the board to resolve the impasse.
Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki’s deputy chief of staff, John Rago, said, “This matter is far from settled, so we need to let it runs its course.”
It was unclear Monday who the current union president is for the firefighters union. Joe Leonetti was president until he pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography in April. He is scheduled to be sentenced next month.
Wilmington firefighters have been without a contract since 2016, when its last collective bargaining agreement expired, and hit an impasse during negotiations in 2019, leading to both the two parties presenting their contract proposals before the Public Employees Relations Board for arbitration.
The change would allow the city to reduce the number of firefighter platoons from four to three and staff each platoon with more firefighters. Under the current four-platoon schedule, about 35 firefighters are working each shift, just over the 34 required for all engines to be fully staffed.
When shifts open due to illness or vacation time, they must be filled with overtime shifts. When more than five overtime positions are needed, that triggers an engine closure – a practice that’s been criticized throughout the city and blamed in a lawsuit for contributing to the deaths of three firefighters in a Canby Park blaze in 2016.
The shift change would add 13 days of work for Wilmington firefighters annually, for which the contract included 16% raises to cover the additional time.
Union leaders have said firefighters were willing to agree to the 24/48 shift schedule provided Wilmington officials agreed not to shut down engines or lay off any firefighters, but the city refused to include that provision in the contract. The firefighters’ union expressed concern that the higher salaries would lead to the city cutting costs by shrinking platoon size, again raising the risk of shutting down engines.