Nevada Supreme Court Clears Way For Firefighter Layoffs

The city of Reno has prevailed in its legal battle to lay off 32 firefighters, but city Manager Andrew Clinger says the jobs are safe for now.

In an opinion issued on Wednesday, the Nevada Supreme Court reversed District Judge Lidia Stiglich’s injunction preventing Reno from going through with the layoffs, finding that the fire union has no right to arbitrate the layoffs under its collective bargaining agreement.

Despite the legal victory, however, Clinger said the city will not pursue the layoffs this year after finding additional funding to keep them employed until June 30.

“I know because of the Supreme Court decision there is some anxiety among some of our firefighters, but I want the message to be clear: We are not laying anyone off in the current fiscal year,” Clinger said. “I can’t guarantee what the future fiscal year is going to look like.”

The city will begin its budgeting process for the fiscal year beginning July 1 in February.

Dennis Jacobsen, president of Local 731, said he was disappointed in the court’s opinion, but said the union’s primary goal of protecting its members’ jobs was realized.

“In our point of view, the action, although unfortunate, served its purpose and kept the firemen on the job serving the community,” he said.

In its decision, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the city’s right to unilaterally pursue layoffs if it decides it does not have enough money to keep employees working. In its lawsuit to block the layoffs, Reno Fire Fighters Local 731 disputed the city’s financial condition and argued an arbitrator should be able to decide whether a “lack of funds” actually existed.

The Nevada Supreme Court rejected that argument, pointing to state law and contract language that gives the city the exclusive right to reduce its workforce due to a lack of work or funds.

“The reduction in force due to lack of funds instead remains within the city’s sole discretion,” Justice James Hardesty wrote in the unanimous opinion. Forcing the city into arbitration over that point would “render meaningless the city’s agreed upon reservation of that right.”

Clinger called the decision a victory for all local governments in the state.

“I think it’s huge,” Clinger said. “It solidifies for local government the management right that we as local governments do have the right to lay off employees in order to balance the budget.”

In April, Reno lost a significant federal grant that it relied on to keep almost a third of its firefighting force employed. Clinger found enough money to save 15 of the 50 jobs affected and the Council decided to lay off the remaining 35 firefighters.

The union sued, arguing the city had enough money to keep the firefighters employed and that the layoffs violated its labor contract. Stiglich issued the temporary injunction blocking the layoffs to allow the firefighters to go through the grievance and arbitration process.

The city appealed Stiglich’s decision, but in the meantime found enough money to keep the firefighters on the job through the end of the fiscal year.

The Nevada Supreme Court found that while the union has the right to negotiate the procedures for the layoffs, it does not have the right to negotiate the city’s power to decide whether layoffs should occur.

“The district court appears to conflate the right to reduce the workforce with the procedures for carrying out such a reduction,” Hardesty wrote.

The city is in the middle of negotiating a new labor agreement with the firefighters union. Both Clinger and Jacobsen said the negotiations are going well and that the relationship is much less adversarial than it was last spring.

“Both sides turned labor relations around, I believe,” Jacobsen said. “Things are really positive. We are having great meetings on contractual and other issues. If this is what it took to get us to this point, then it’s a win for everybody.”

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