Ohio township appealing firefighter union lawsuit over traveling lieutenants
The union filed an unfair labor practices charge, claiming that West Chester "unilaterally changed the terms and conditions of employment"
By Denise G. Callahan
WEST CHESTER TOWNSHIP, Ohio — West Chester Twp. is appealing the judge's decision in a lawsuit the trustees filed against their fire union over the use of traveling lieutenants, a practice that has saved $250,000 in overtime.
The township sued the union a year ago because overtime costs for fire lieutenants have been skyrocketing over the past several years. Township officials decided to create the role of "traveling lieutenant" to fill in as-needed. Annual overtime cost savings were estimated at $230,000, according to the lawsuit filed in Butler County Common Pleas Court, but actual savings have been closer to $250,000. The idea was to hire/promote three people to fill in when "vacancies existed due to vacation, sick leave, medical leave or other absence."
The township was asking Judge Dan Haughey to confirm the arbitrator's decision, declare the continuing grievances on this issue moot, dismiss them and prevent them from going to arbitration, and that the township has no obligation to bargain the matter with the union.
The union filed two grievances over the issue and has filed around 400 more throughout this lawsuit, according to Barb Wilson, director of public information and engagement.
"From the union's perspective the main objection is that the parties have a contract that governs how overtime is to be apportioned under certain circumstances, how it is to be distributed," the union's attorney Bennett Allen told the Journal-News after the suit was filed. "The township's plan for using these traveling lieutenants ... it's our position it violates the parties contract."
The township denied the grievances and it went to arbitration, and the township won. The arbitrator ruled "the board has the authority to determine the size and composition of the workforce."
The union also filed an unfair labor practices charge with the State Employment Relations Board, claiming "the township unilaterally changed the terms and conditions of employment" by utilizing the traveling lieutenants. SERB dismissed the complaint stating "the charge is dismissed with prejudice for lack of probable cause to believe the statute has been violated."
The union asked for reconsideration and SERB denied the request.
The union filed a motion to dismiss and counterclaim, asking Haughey to order the township to bargain the intent to create new lieutenant positions or new union positions. The judge denied the dismissal in September and has now has ruled on the bargaining issue.
Haughey wrote in his opinion the township was asking him to expand the arbitrator's award and find the pending and future grievances moot, he said that is beyond the court's authority. Likewise, he said he has no authority to order the township to bargain the grievances.
He also wrote "the sole issue for resolution is whether or not the arbitrator's award was unlawful, arbitrary or capricious. The court cannot find that it it," and confirmed the arbitrator's award.
Trustee Mark Welch said they are contesting the decision because there was a "savings last year and we certainly want to keep this in place and we believe it is within our right to make these assignments, it's not a union thing."
As for the judge's ruling, he said there doesn't appear to be any real winners, and Haughey basically "punted it" back to the arbitrator.
"The arbitrator basically awarded it to us and the judge completely ignored, I think, what the arbitrator said," Welch said. "In my humble opinion it simply extends the process, we're going to have to go through this again."
Allen told the Journal-News they are the victors in this decision because Haughey refused to expand the meaning of the arbitrator's decision, their argument all along, "the judge says I can't expand on the award, the award is the award."
He said he thinks Haughey was wrong on the bargaining issue and he can file a separate lawsuit to "compel arbitration" but he hasn't decided yet if he will do that.
He said the two sides have agreed to mediation — that happened before the notice of appeal was filed on Thursday — and that is scheduled for May 17.
"We are preparing to go in there with a list of things that we would agree to," Allen said. "Of course we will engage in good faith and would expect that the township will do the same."
The township was required to file a notice of appeal within 30 days of the judge's decision to preserve the right, in case mediation fails.
Wilson confirmed they will be mediating "to see if we can reach some mutually agreeable resolution." She also said the traveling lieutenants program in addition to saving money has "opened the door to career advancement for firefighters and better established work/life balance for the department members."
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