In City of Allentown, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered the City to implement an interest arbitration award which contained (among modifications to wages, sick leave, vacation, pension and overtime) a minimum staffing requirement of 25 firefighters per shift.
As every public sector employer and practitioner knows, a municipality has no obligation to bargain with a union representing police officers or firefighters over inherent managerial policy (overall budget, standards of service, organizational structure, selection and direction of employees). I mean, it says so, right there in the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act! The PLRA is forever linked to Act 111, which makes it mandatory for municipalities to bargain with police and fire unions over the terms and conditions of employment (compensation, hours, working conditions, other benefits).
Act 111 also provides the mechanism for municipalities and unions to submit their disputes to binding interest arbitration, but only those disputes which concern mandatory subjects of bargaining. An arbitration panel that issues an award on a topic that is a managerial prerogative exceeds its powers.
But, what happens when a dispute concerns both a mandatory subject (i.e. it is rationally related to the terms and conditions of employment) and a managerial policy (i.e., budget or direction of personnel)? Well, then the question is whether bargaining with the union over the issue would unduly infringe on the municipality’s essential managerial responsibilities. That is the analysis that the Supreme Court applied to the minimum staffing dispute facing the City of Allentown and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 302.
Prior case law left us with this: the total number of firefighters that a municipality employs is a matter of managerial prerogative and a municipality need not bargain over that number. An arbitration award that mandates a total complement number is illegal. Prior case law also left us with this: the number of firefighters actually assigned to a particular station or to a piece of fire equipment is a mandatory subject of bargaining, as it is rationally related to the safety of firefighters, i.e. a working condition. So, an arbitration award that mandates the minimum crew on each rig is perfectly legal.
Confused? Citing safety concerns and relying heavily on arbitration testimony that increased staffing leads to a safer working environment and a decrease in injuries and physical stress, the Court concluded that minimum staffing had a “direct and significant impact on firefighter health and safety” and did not unduly infringe on the City’s financial burdens.
More directly, the Court (currently comprised of 1 elected Republican, 5 elected Democrats and 1 Republican appointed by a Democrat Governor) did little more than pay lip service to how minimum staffing leads to increased overtime, or how increased overtime leads to increased pension expenses, or how increased pension expenses lead to unfunded pension liabilities, or how unfunded pension liabilities are crippling so many municipalities across the Commonwealth.
So what now? It appears that the overall complement is still a decision left for the public employer; however, once that number is set, then the parties must negotiate regarding the number of employees assigned to each shift. Certainly, this leaves many questions unanswered. And certainly, the impact on municipal budgets, already strained and struggling, will be significant.