Firefighter Shift Staffing Levels Negotiable

The collective bargaining agreement between the City of Allentown, Pennsylvania and Local 302 of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) contained a provision setting a minimum on-duty shift strength of no less than 26 firefighters as of January 1, 2005; no less than 27 firefighters as of January 1, 2006; and no less than 28 firefighters as of January 1, 2007. In May 2011, the parties began to bargain over a successor contract, but could not reach an agreement. The City declared an impasse, and requested binding interest arbitration.

The Arbitration Panel’s award made modifications to issues of wages, sick leave, vacation, pension, and overtime. With regard to staffing, the panel held that “there shall be a manning scheduling requirement of twenty-five (25) per shift, which shall include all scheduled personnel including command positions.” The City challenged the Panel’s opinion through the court system, leading to a significant decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on the negotiability of firefighter staffing levels.

The Court broadly painted its mission: “Ultimately, we are attempting to discern the Legislature’s intent regarding the rights and duties of municipal employers and unions regarding collective bargaining – more specifically, we must discern what are the proper subjects of bargaining, what are managerial responsibilities, and what are managerial prerogatives. Regarding subjects of bargaining, the General Assembly could have supplied an exhaustive list of all mandatory subjects of bargaining, but it did not do so. While providing certain examples of subjects of bargaining, such as ‘hours,’ which has caused relatively little difficulty, the Legislature employed more open-ended terminology as well, such as ‘terms and conditions of employment,’ and ‘other benefits,’ the nature of which has been debated and left to administrative and judicial determination.”

The Court turned to a metaphor to outline the difficulty of its task: “The divisions between these topics are not always clear. One may envision a Venn diagram with topics in the overlapping space that are terms and conditions of employment – which are subject to collective bargaining, and may serve as the part of an interest arbitration award – that also implicate matters of managerial responsibility – over which negotiation is not mandated, and which cannot serve as the basis for an arbitration award. Mandatory minimum shift staffing is one of these topics.

“Because firefighter safety is at the core of our analysis, we also look to the evidence proffered by the parties. The relevant evidence offered by the IAFF at the arbitration hearing concentrated on the relationship between staffing and safety. Specifically, Art Martynuska, President of the Professional Firefighters Association, which is the state affiliate of the IAFF, testified about the concept of fire propagation – that is, the relationship of time and temperature in a fire – and the impact on public and firefighter safety of a quick response and adequate personnel. Martynuska referenced studies linking increased staffing to a decrease in on-the-job injuries and lower workers’ compensation claims. He spoke to the physical demands placed on firefighters and the resulting health effects, including physical stress placed upon them, especially when understaffed. In its most direct terms, Martynuska stressed that ‘if the number of employees per shift, per piece of apparatus isn’t sufficient to do the job appropriately, then it’s going to cause a safety issue for the firefighters.’

“The City’s evidence regarding mandated shift staffing was more limited, primarily focusing on how overtime resulting from minimum staffing was increasing pension expenses for the City. Specifically, the City offered the testimony of Vijay Kapoor, Director of Public Financial Management’s Workforce Consulting. Kapoor testified that minimum manning and sick leave impacted overtime, and that overtime increased pension benefits, which in turn placed an acute financial strain on the City, and became a primary issue of contention at the arbitration hearing.

“We find there is a direct and significant relationship between the number of individuals available to respond to a call at a station – minimum shift staffing – and the safety of the City’s firefighters. The testimony and documentary evidence from the arbitration proceedings clearly establishes an unambiguous and powerful link between shift staffing and firefighter health and safety. The City’s proffer regarding how such a provision unduly infringes upon its managerial responsibilities is only tangential in nature, and largely relates to how overtime costs due to minimum staffing provisions negatively impacts the City’s pension burden.

“Accordingly, we conclude that shift staffing mandates are more akin to the mandates regarding the staffing of firefighting apparatus than the staffing of the entire fire department. While we are acutely aware of, and sensitive to, the significant financial challenges facing the City and other cities in our Commonwealth, we conclude that the City has not demonstrated that a minimum staffing requirement unduly infringes upon the City’s managerial responsibilities in the same manner, or to the same extent, that budgeting or overall staffing mandates might in light of the impact of staffing on firefighter safety.

“Indeed, under that arbitration decision, the City is not required to employ a definite number of firefighters, but may meet minimum mandates through overtime and fire company closures. Even with minimum shift staffing, the City retains the ability to dictate the level of fire protection it provides to its citizens and continues to possess ultimate decision-making regarding budgetary matters. Finally, we note that this mandate was not cast in stone, as the new agreement by its terms expired in December 2015, and the parties at that juncture were able to re-negotiate this issue.”

City of Allentown v. IAFF, Local 302, 2017 WL 1151104 (Pa. 2017).