Arbitrator Backs Fire Officers in Dispute With Jersey City
Updated On: Sep 14, 2015
Jersey City lost a battle with its fire officers union last week, with an outside arbitrator ruling city officials had a "complete disregard" for its contract with the union.
NJ.com - JERSEY CITY - The city lost a battle with its fire officers union last week, with an outside arbitrator ruling city officials had a "complete disregard" for its contract with the union when, in a cost-cutting move, it began using firefighters to fill captain and chief vacancies.
The arbitrator also slapped the city for not giving enough notice when taking officers who usually work a Monday-Friday schedule and assigning them to a 24-hour tour of duty to fill unanticipated vacancies. The city is "contractually prohibited" from making these "intermittent changes" in normal work schedules, arbitrator Michael Berzansky said on Aug. 6.
The city's actions, which it says were an effort to expand the number of firefighters on duty without costing taxpayers more, "denied overtime opportunities" to the captains and chiefs, the union alleged when it filed its grievance.
The ruling could cost the city a bundle, with Berzansky saying the city must compensate captains, battalion chiefs and deputy chiefs for "all lost overtime opportunities" since the dispute began two years ago.
Pete Nowak, president of the Jersey City Fire Officers Association, said he is "happy" but declined to offer much more of a comment, saying the ruling, which the city can appeal, is "a work in progress."
"We'll see where it goes," Nowak told The Jersey Journal. "Until the fat lady sings, I'd rather not make any comment on it."
The arbitrator's ruling is already having an effect on staffing: the city closed down four fire companies Tuesday night, city officials argued, to comply with Berzansky's decision. Firefighters told The Jersey Journal they believe the closures were "retaliatory" and have left the city less safe, an allegation the city and Nowak both dispute.
"We have kept and will continue to keep every fire house in Jersey City open and anyone who thinks otherwise is mistaken," said city spokesman Ryan Jacobs. "We have had more companies on duty in the last six months than at any point during most of the last six years and we are making sure to be mindful of not costing the taxpayer any more money out of their pocket."
Nowak also said firefighters are prepared for anything, despite four fewer companies on duty yesterday.
"We're as prepared today as we were yesterday as we were a week before," he said.
The conflict goes back to October 2013, when the city began filling vacancies among captains and chiefs with lesser paid firefighters. The city also began assigning fire officers who normally work a Monday through Friday schedule to work a 24-hour tour without providing 72 hours' notice.
Both of these actions, the arbitrator ruled, are forbidden by the city's contract with the union, which represents captains, battalion chiefs and deputy chiefs.
Two days before the union alleges the city began improperly filling vacancies among captains and chiefs, the city issued a press release touting a fire department restructuring that would save the city up to $1 million.
Then, the city said it had used its entire $2.6 million overtime budget, only 10 months into the year. Payroll records obtained by The Jersey Journal showed battalion chiefs and captains earned a significant amount of the overtime, with nine battalion chiefs alone in 2012 making more than $20,000 in overtime each.