In the City of Allentown v. International Association of Fire Fighters Local 302, No. 24 MAP 2016 (March 28, 2017), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court and ruled the issue of shift manning for fire fighters is not a managerial prerogative but a valid subject of collective bargaining.
The Court’s opinion, authored by Justice Todd, found that the issue of shift manning has a closer nexus to firefighter safety than its effect on the City’s managerial responsibilities of budgeting and overall staffing. As a result, minimum shift manning requirements are not a per se managerial prerogative and may be within the power of an Act 111 interest arbitration panel. Through its decision, the Court’s dealt a potentially significant blow to the ability of municipalities to control budgets and public safety costs and to the Commonwealth’s already struggling local taxpayers. The decision also makes manning case preparation and presentation in negotiations and interest arbitration of paramount importance.
The City of Allentown and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 302 (IAFF) were parties to a collective bargaining agreement that expired December 31, 2011. An Act 111 interest arbitration panel suspended the then-existing shift manning requirement contained in the collective bargaining agreement, but reinstated that provision on the last day of the Award.
On appeal, the Commonwealth Court vacated the minimum manning provision in the Award. The Commonwealth Court agreed with the City and ruled that minimum staffing would have the effect of setting a minimum budget for the department. The Commonwealth Court detailed how such a requirement would force the City to employ a certain number of firefighters in order to have enough personnel to cover the shifts. The Court found that both the budget and the overall complement of the department are managerial prerogatives not subject to bargaining.
The Supreme Court overruled the Commonwealth Court and agreed with the vague and general “more is better” argument proffered by the union in support of the shift manning requirement. At the same time, the Court appeared to minimize the City’s evidence of how the minimum shift manning requirement directly drove up the City’s overtime costs and removed the City’s ability to control those costs. It also ignored how the shift staffing requirement increased pension costs and the impact on the taxpayers.
Although the Allentown decision involved firefighters, municipalities must be vigilant in defending against the likely attempts by public sector unions to expand the decision to other types of employees using the guise of employee safety. In addition, even though the Allentown Court reached an imprudent and puzzling decision from the perspective of municipal budgeting and management, the decision highlights how it is now more important than ever for municipalities to up their game and be more prepared than ever in negotiations and Act 111 interest arbitration.
The take-away from the Allentown decision is that is the municipality’s burden to establish that a certain proposal, such as shift manning, would unduly infringe upon its management rights. Thus, when a union proposal involves important managerial responsibilities, such as the level of service or the overall budget, but also implicate both mandatory subjects of bargaining (e.g., safety or another issue rationally related to terms and conditions of employment), municipalities must be prepared to prove though legal and factual argument that the requirement sought by the union would “unduly infringe upon the public employer’s essential managerial responsibilities.” This will require factual preparation, expert testimony and legal arguments.
As all municipal managers know, satisfying minimum shift staffing requirements are extremely costly in terms of overtime and related costs. It also removes the ability of the City to manage its budget by being able to manage and target its staffing needs based on its budget and operational needs. The inability to manage those issues can be very fiscally detrimental to the municipality and its tax payers. As a result, it is imperative that municipalities be prepared to protect those rights during bargaining and interest arbitration.