Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2010, Thursday

The Wall Street Journal

October 14, 2010, Thursday

The Wall Street Journal

City, Firefighters Face Off Over Staffing

Administration Says It'll Let Lapse a Deal for Extra Hands on Busiest Engines; Union Claims Negotiations Are Necessary

The city has fired the first salvo in a battle with the firefighters' union over reducing staffing and controlling medical leave.

In a letter Tuesday to the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the city said it planned to let lapse a deal that allows 60 engine companies to staff each shift with an extra firefighter, as long as the average number of firefighters taking medical leave doesn't exceed a specified level.

The agreement offered the city a way to control medical leave and the union more overtime. The agreement, which allowed a fifth firefighter per shift at some of the city's busiest engine companies, is set to expire early next year. The question is whether the state's arcane labor law allows the city to decide to let the agreement die or whether it forces the city to negotiate over its renewal. City officials estimate eliminating the fifth firefighter would save $16 million in overtime costs in the first year and $30 million after five years. Union officials insist the staffing is necessary to keep response times down and any cuts put the public at risk.

Union officials said the so-called Roster Staffing Agreement stipulates that once it expires, the city must negotiate according to collective-bargaining laws if it wishes to change staffing levels. Documents outlining the terms of the agreement state that in the event the city plans to make staffing changes, "the parties will negotiate to the extent required by the New York City Collective Bargaining Law."

In the letter informing the union that the agreement is expiring at the end of January, city Labor Relations Commissioner James Hanley unveiled how the city plans to try to control medical leave without the Roster Staffing Agreement. The letter said that should the percentage of firefighters on medical leave exceed 7.5%, the city would implement a policy that would suspend a privilege known as "mutuals" that lets firefighters trade shifts among themselves so that they can work two 24-hour shifts instead of a total of 48 hours over four days.

"It's an effort to keep medical leave in check," while allowing the city to save on overtime from the extra staffing under the current agreement, said a city official familiar with the new policy. About 70% of city firefighters work mutuals, the official said.

The city said the new policy concerning mutuals is not subject to any collective-bargaining laws. "This has been litigated and resolved, and we have the right to make the change," said Jason Post, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Stephen Cassidy, president of the UFA, called the new policy on mutuals a "red herring." He said the issue is about whether the city can just let the existing agreement that provides for the extra firefighters at the busiest engine companies expire.

"The letter that came from Commissioner Hanley doesn't address the issue at all," Mr. Cassidy said. "Are they saying that they don't have to negotiate with the UFA? I don't get it."

Mr. Cassidy said according to the Triborough Amendment of the Taylor Law, an expiring agreement must continue to be implemented until a new agreement is negotiated with the union.

Earlier this year, Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano told a City Council committee that any plan to reduce staffing on the 60 engine companies with the extra firefighter would be discussed with the union and go to arbitration if no agreement were reached.

On Wednesday, Mr. Post said the Roster Staffing Agreement was not a labor contract and can be allowed to lapse. He said the city would be open to discussing staffing as part of future negotiations with the UFT. "Nothing is on or off the table," he said.

Lee Adler, an expert on public-sector collective bargaining at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said whether the current agreement can be allowed to expire hinges on "if it is part of a collective-bargaining agreement or found to be in a collective-bargaining agreement by the state or municipal dispute-resolution authorities." In that case, "the firefighters are likely to be in good shape," Mr. Adler said.

If the agreement was part of a stand-alone pact, the fate of the agreement becomes "a bit unclear," he said.

Write to Tamer El-Ghobashy at