OGDENSBURG — Just 72 hours after oral arguments were heard in the fire union’s case against the city, a state Supreme Court judge on Monday denied the union’s request to reinstate five laid-off city firefighters.
On Dec. 18, Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799, filed suit in state Supreme Court in St. Lawrence County against the city in order to temporarily halt city officials from reducing the size of the fire department staff. Ten days later, Judge Mary M. Farley — who also issued Monday’s ruling — denied the union’s request for a temporary restraining order.
Judge Farley’s denial on Dec. 28, allowed the city to move forward with eliminating seven fire department positions if the city and the union were unable to come to an agreement before Jan. 1.
Last month, five layoff notices were issued as, at the time, one fire captain had chosen to accept the city’s $25,000 retirement incentive, and a sixth firefighter remains out on leave for an unspecified injury. It was revealed during the case’s oral arguments Friday that two more firefighters have opted to retire while a third is under “disciplinary review.” The layoffs took effect Jan. 1.
The union has also filed a grievance with the city in an effort to have the issue go before an arbitrator — a form of alternative dispute resolution as a way to resolve issues outside the court system. Since the preliminary injunction attempting to reinstate the laid-off firefighters has been denied, the next step in the case would be to go before an arbitrator, but the city must accept the union’s request to do so.
Union President Jason T. Bouchard said Monday the decision wasn’t necessarily unexpected.
“It is what it is at this point in time,” he said. “We’re just hoping we can move toward arbitration and get these guys back to work.”
Watertown Professional Firefighters’ Association, Local 191, also lost their injunction, “so it’s not unheard of,” he said.
Watertown’s fire union has also engaged in litigation over the years regarding its minimum staffing agreement.
“The city of Ogdensburg will continue with efforts to re-organize, re-structure and reduce the size of the fire department as part of the very decisive actions taken by City Council to strengthen the city’s financial position,” City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie said in an email Monday upon hearing the news of the decision.
In its petition, the union relies on several items within the current contract, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2020, and is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2025. Article 18 references compensation and staffing, which includes hazard pay; the minimum staffing of four firefighters, one assistant chief and one captain per shift; a minimum of five collective bargaining agreement members to be on duty at all times, unless otherwise mutually agreed to in writing for the contract’s duration; and the biggest issue at hand, minimum manning reductions due to budgetary reasons.
With the passing of the 2021 budget on Dec. 9, the city reduced the size of the fire department from 27 firefighters to 20, which dipped below the 24-person minimum agreed upon in the collective bargaining agreement.
Article 20 speaks to vacancies within the department. When a vacancy occurs, such that the department’s full-time staffing falls below the 24-person threshold, the vacancies are to be filled as soon as is practicable.
Mr. Jellie has previously said the current firefighters’ union contract was “hastily” agreed upon by the 2019 City Council. It’s stated in the ruling that the city asserts the agreement was negotiated during a period of severe financial distress. The contract was agreed upon in November 2019 — pre COVID-19 pandemic — but Mr. Jellie asserts that the city was in financial stress well before the pandemic.
The average cost of a firefighter within the city’s department is roughly $131,000, which Mr. Jellie said Monday is “no longer affordable under any circumstances” at the department’s current staffing level.
The union has argued that, for health and safety reasons, members would suffer irreparable harm that can’t be undone by an arbitration award. But Judge Farley disagreed in her decision rendered Monday.
“The Court concludes any arbitration award which might later be rendered in the Union’s favor will not be rendered ineffectual by the failure to grant a preliminary injunction in this special proceeding,” Judge Farley wrote. “If the Union is successful, harm to the Union or its members may be remedied by the awards of reinstatement, back pay, and accrued but unpaid benefits,” concluding the union has not met its burden of showing that not having a preliminary injunction in place would allow them to achieve a different outcome through arbitration.
The union also asserts the reduced staffing within the department will jeopardize firefighters, stating it’s “inherently unsafe to respond to a fire and enter a burning building with less than five firefighters,” as they have not been trained to operate with fewer.
They also say the ability to respond to simultaneous alarms is impeded, and the effects of COVID-19 “will not allow enough members to backfill in the event an entire shift is infected.”
The city has said it would mitigate those concerns by relying on mutual aid from other fire departments, and that the affected firefighters “will be made whole by the award of money damages in the event that they prevail.”
“It is well stated that, ‘if the (party seeking preliminary injunction) has an adequate remedy at law and may be fully compensated by monetary damages, a preliminary injunction will not be granted,’” Judge Farley wrote.
Much, or all, of the loss the union “complains” of derives from the lost wages and fringe benefits, she wrote.
“They may be recompensed by monetary awards,” she wrote.
Further, she wrote, the city’s response to the union’s issue indicates increased use of mutual aid “will eliminate or lessen the risks of the inherently dangerous task of firefighting.”
Mr. Bouchard has said relying on mutual aid is not sustainable.
“Although the City’s anticipated actions may not eliminate the possibility of irreparable harm resulting from the Union’s health and safety concerns, the Union has not shown the possibility of harm to be ‘imminent, not remote or speculative,’” she wrote.
The union was also denied its injunction based on the likelihood of success on the merit, or the union’s success at arbitration, as well as balancing of equities.
“The harm to the Union and its members — loss of employment with benefits, as well as potential increase in personal risk for those who continue to work under reduced staffing — is also severe,” the judge wrote. “Nonetheless, the Court must conclude that the Union has not carried its burden of showing the equities sufficiently tip in its favor to merit a preliminary injunction.”