City to pay firefighters, continue appeal

The saga con­tin­ues: Mem­bers of Fire­fight­ers Uni­on Loc­al 22 held signs crit­ic­al of May­or Nut­ter dur­ing a protest out­side City Hall in March. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Even as City Hall and Phil­adelphia’s fire­fight­ers uni­on em­barked on new con­tract ar­bit­ra­tion last week, May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter yiel­ded ground in his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­longed leg­al war with fire­fight­ers over their re­cently ex­pired 2009 con­tract.

Nut­ter last Wed­nes­day an­nounced that the city would not chal­lenge an Aug. 7 or­der by Com­mon Pleas Court Judge Idee Fox to im­ple­ment a por­tion of the 2009 con­tract, pending the city’s ap­peal of its terms in Com­mon­wealth Court. Fox ordered the city to pay $13.7 mil­lion in­to the uni­on’s act­ive-duty and re­tir­ee health-care funds, while in­creas­ing the city’s monthly con­tri­bu­tions in­to the act­ive-duty health-care fund by more than $400 per act­ive-duty uni­on mem­ber, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment is­sued by Nut­ter’s of­fice.

The Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion will con­tin­ue to pur­sue its ap­peal of the en­tire 2009 con­tract in Com­mon­wealth Court and, if suc­cess­ful, will seek re­im­burse­ment from the uni­on.

“While we dis­agree with the judge’s or­der, we have de­cided to move for­ward and im­ple­ment it,” Nut­ter said. “This court or­der is, in ef­fect, a split de­cision and only tem­por­ary in nature. We have con­cluded that it’s more im­port­ant for the Com­mon­wealth Court to fo­cus on the mer­its of the city’s ap­peal than on this or­der, which has only tem­por­ary ef­fect. Should the city pre­vail in its ap­peal, the city will re­cov­er the money paid to the health fund un­der this or­der.”

The ad­min­is­tra­tion cal­cu­lated that the city would pay about $69 mil­lion in new fire­fight­er health-care costs if main­tained for the next five fisc­al years.

Loc­al 22 of the In­ter­na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Fire Fight­ers, which rep­res­ents about 1,900 act­ive and 2,100 re­tired city fire­fight­ers and para­med­ics, had ar­gued to Judge Fox that the city should be re­quired to pay the en­tire 2009 con­tract — in­clud­ing wage in­creases and in­creased health-care fund con­tri­bu­tions — pending the out­come of the city’s on­go­ing Com­mon­wealth Court ap­peal.

“We’re happy that the city did not ap­peal Judge Fox’s or­der and are hope­ful this is the first step in get­ting the en­tire 2009 [con­tract] honored,” said Loc­al 22 Pres­id­ent Joe Schulle.

The leg­al fight over the con­tract has been long and ar­du­ous. Loc­al 22 mem­bers have gone without a raise for four years and have been work­ing es­sen­tially without a con­tract since Ju­ly 1, 2009.

That year, the city and uni­on began a lengthy ar­bit­ra­tion pro­cess. In Oc­to­ber 2010, a three-mem­ber ar­bit­ra­tion pan­el awar­ded the uni­on a new four-year deal ret­ro­act­ively. The city ap­pealed the award to Com­mon Pleas Court, where the parties agreed to re­turn to ar­bit­ra­tion.

In Ju­ly 2012, ar­bit­rat­ors is­sued a new four-year award ret­ro­act­ively, with terms gen­er­ally viewed as more fa­vor­able to the uni­on than the pre­vi­ous award. The Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pealed again to Com­mon Pleas Court.

Last Novem­ber, Judge Fox ruled in fa­vor of the uni­on and up­held the ar­bit­ra­tion award. The city ap­pealed again, to Com­mon­wealth Court, which is one step be­low Pennsylvania’s Su­preme Court.

The parties are sched­uled to ar­gue the case in Com­mon­wealth Court in Har­ris­burg start­ing Sept. 11, Schulle said. Ac­cord­ing to the uni­on pres­id­ent, the full court of 11 judges is ex­pec­ted to hear the case.

Since the out­set of the city’s ap­peals, the uni­on’s health fund has been de­pleted from a bal­ance of $28 mil­lion to less than $2 mil­lion due to rising health­care costs and stag­nant city con­tri­bu­tions in­to the fund, ac­cord­ing to the uni­on.

Schulle, who be­came Loc­al 22 pres­id­ent on Ju­ly 1 after de­feat­ing in­cum­bent Bill Gault in a uni­on­wide elec­tion, says the uni­on will not sac­ri­fice any pro­vi­sions of the 2009 ar­bit­ra­tion award to re­solve the leg­al dis­pute.

“The most likely scen­ario is we’re go­ing to go through the court sys­tem,” Schulle said. “We are will­ing to dis­cuss the is­sues with the city, but our in­ten­tion is to have the award honored.”

Any ad­di­tion­al pay­ments from the city will be ret­ro­act­ive, as the ar­bit­ra­tion award in ques­tion — the one gran­ted last Ju­ly and com­monly known as the “2009 award” — ex­pired on June 30. In Com­mon­wealth Court, the uni­on will de­fend the ar­bit­ra­tion pro­cess, rather than the out­come.

“We’re de­fend­ing how [ar­bit­rat­ors] came to the de­term­in­a­tion that the city can pay for the award,” Schulle said.

The uni­on main­tains that ar­bit­ra­tion is bind­ing to both the uni­on and the city in ac­cord­ance with state law. The same law pre­vents fire­fight­ers from go­ing on strike. The city has ar­gued in court fil­ings that ar­bit­rat­ors failed to give the re­quired con­sid­er­a­tion to the city’s abil­ity to pay the con­tract award.

The ar­bit­ra­tion pro­cess began on a new Loc­al 22 con­tract on Aug. 12. Ac­cord­ing to Schulle, a three-mem­ber ar­bit­ra­tion pan­el con­vened three days last week and will meet three days this week to hear ar­gu­ments from the Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion and the uni­on. The pan­el is ex­pec­ted to work in­to the fall to de­term­ine the terms and length of a new con­tract.

Ac­cord­ing to Schulle, the city has pro­posed no raises for fire­fight­ers and para­med­ics, with cuts in the city’s con­tri­bu­tions to the uni­on’s health-care and pen­sion funds.

“That’s stand­ard, noth­ing sur­pris­ing or earth-shat­ter­ing,” Schulle said.

The uni­on is seek­ing in­cre­ment­al wage in­creases and oth­er cost-of-liv­ing ad­just­ments, but has not made spe­cif­ic de­mands.

“We’re ask­ing for raises com­men­sur­ate with in­fla­tion. We’re not ask­ing for spe­cif­ic num­bers right now,” Schulle said. “We typ­ic­ally look to main­tain a level of par­ity [with po­lice].” ••

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