Ruling: Emmaus firefighters can vote to unionize
Pa. Labor Relations Board examiner: Firefighters are borough employees.
Members of the Emmaus Fire Department, long considered volunteers by the borough’s council and management, are employees who have the right to unionize, a state Labor Relations Board hearing examiner has ruled in a proposed order. The order, which could have significant financial implications for the borough of 12,000 if firefighters ultimately decide to unionize, could potentially affect other boroughs and townships that have similar control over and provide wages to firefighters now classified as volunteers. The dispute stems from a decision the borough made a number of years ago to pay what it considered a stipend to firefighters to help offset the drop in qualified volunteers. Emmaus is one of about a dozen Lehigh Valley municipalities that provides some level of pay and benefits to firefighters. A union vote is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at Borough Hall. Following the vote, the borough and the firefighters can appeal the order by John Pozniak, who heard arguments in January following a petition by the Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighters Association to represent the Emmaus firefighters. Wednesday’s vote is also subject to challenges by both sides. “We disagree with the decision,” said Tom Dinkelacker, an Orefield attorney who represents the borough. “But the next step is for the election.” Matthew Areman, the Philadelphia attorney representing the firefighters organization, said his client is pleased that the issue is going to an election. “We look forward to an honest and fair election to determine whether the employees want to be represented.” Even though the firefighters gained the right to unionize, the formation of a union isn’t a foregone conclusion. Half of the Fire Department members who vote in Wednesday’s election must give their support for the union. The department has an estimated 35 members. Chief James Reiss is not eligible to be a member of the union. It’s not clear what financial impact a unionized Fire Department would have on the borough and its taxpayers. The borough, which has a general operating budget of $8.8 million this year, earmarked $2.2 million for its unionized police department, which has about 18 officers and a chief, according to borough budget documents. Pozniak’s ruling was based in large part on measures the borough and its council have taken in recent years relative to the operation and oversight of and compensation for firefighters. The issue came down to whether the firefighters were considered employees or volunteers. “In essence, the borough has already hired the firefighters and despite any alleged intent on behalf of the borough that the firefighters not be public employees, the borough has already made them public employees by paying them hourly wages and possessing and exercising significant control over their terms and conditions of employment,” Pozniak said in his ruling. The borough earmarks a little more than $500,000 in its annual budget for firefighting services. Of that, about $269,000 goes toward stipends for firefighters. The borough owns the Fire Department building and most of the equipment in it. The Fire Department has two members — Reiss and secretary Victoria Schadler — who are employees of the borough and answer to the borough’s administration In addition, council in 1999 passed an ordinance that established the Fire Department and several positions as “at-will employees and appointees.” The ordinance also said that appointees were subject to the approval of council and that firefighters would be under the control of the fire chief “who shall be accountable to the borough manager and council.” The borough also reserved the right to establish rules, regulations and operating procedures for the department. “There is little doubt that the petitioned-for firefighters are employees…and not volunteers as alleged by the borough,” Pozniak wrote. In 2013, the pay rate was set at $10.15 to $15.22. Firefighters receive a base amount that increases based on their qualifications and training. Pozniak noted the final say on discipline of firefighters rests with the borough in that a firefighter can appeal discipline imposed by the chief. In 2011, management issued firefighters a borough personnel policy. Two years later, it issued them a policy for light duty responsibilities related to on-the-job injuries. Neil A. Morris, a labor attorney from Philadelphia, said the Fire Department operation as it relates to the borough seems unique. In most towns, fire companies operate independently from the borough and receive some financial support from the municipality. Municipalities also pay for workers’ compensation insurance. “Most smaller towns have volunteer fire departments, which may have a few paid employees and are funded largely through a fire tax that the municipality supports them with,” he said. “However, it is truly a volunteer, private organization. “In this situation, the borough appears to have extended its reach in terms of the fire company to the extent that it exercises more control.” This article was written by Patrick Lester and originally published in “The Morning Call East Penn News” you can view the article on their site by clicking here
ABOUT NEIL MORRIS
email@example.com| 267.338.1383 Neil Morris has passionately represented employers for the last 25 years. Mr. Morris specializes in the areas of labor and employment, municipal labor law, employment discrimination, defamation and business litigation. Mr. Morris has served as Special/Labor Counsel for more than 35 Pennsylvania Townships and Boroughs, the County of Bucks and many private employers. He is often brought into municipalities to handle “crisis” situations involving employees and/or management. Mr. Morris handles cases throughout the country including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia. In 1999, Neil achieved one of the highest defamation jury awards ever in Pennsylvania for a business client. He also has extensive appellate experience arguing appellate cases before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Superior Court and Commonwealth Court as well as various Federal District Courts and before the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third, Fourth and Tenth Circuits. Mr. Morris has also argued successfully before the Mississippi Supreme Court.