By Matt Curatolo
Watertown Daily Times
OGDENSBURG, N.Y. — Members of the union representing Ogdensburg’s firefighters are entitled to more than $519,000 in back pay following a review by an arbitrator in an ongoing case presented to the Public Employee Relations Board.
In December, arbitrator Timothy W. Gorman ruled that the city violated the six-year collective bargaining agreement when it forced the department to staff fewer than five members on a shift over the last two years. At the time, Mr. Gorman stated that a monetary award, which is typical for minimum staffing violations, would be required from the city and that it would be “remanded to the parties” to figure out how much was owed in back pay.
“I will retain jurisdiction over the entire award including the back pay issue,” he stated in his December ruling.
In his latest ruling on April 14, Mr. Gorman wrote that in February the city and union were unable to agree upon a back pay amount and he instructed the city and union to submit briefs concerning the amount each felt was owed, how it was calculated and any supporting documentation.
Mr. Gorman determined that the union members were owed $519,680 in back pay from the city from more than 10,510 hours denied during a 17-month period beginning in January 2021. This was from documentation provided by the union.
The city, according to his ruling, “believes that any make-whole award is inappropriate.” The municipality declined to provide a “calculation, rationale, or back-up documentation of this award to which it objects.”
Mr. Gorman found the union calculation “to be accurate, fair and just in the present matter.”
However, he did include in his ruling that he is concerned about the city’s financial condition.
“While I believe that my authority as arbitrator in this case ends with the fashioning of the award amount, it is my hope that the City and the Union would bargain in good faith over some type of fair and equitable installment arrangement for payment of this award,” he wrote.
“The award by the arbitrator validates the union position that city officials failed to honor the terms of its legally binding contract each time it failed to have five firefighters on duty. In fact, the arbitrator’s award clearly indicates that this was neither incidental nor an honest mistake,” Local 1799 President Jason T. Bouchard said in a press release.
When reached for comment, City Manager Mohideen F. Buharie, who started as city manager March 1 following the resignation of Stephen P. Jellie in November, said he had conveyed the arbitrator’s ruling to the City Council along with staff recommendations.
“At this time, we are awaiting the council’s directions in order to proceed,” he said.
Local 1799 had filed grievances after the city dropped its number of firefighters to 21 in 2021 and 18 in 2022 which forced the department to staff four firefighters on a shift. The contract states that a “minimum of 5 bargaining unit employees (4 Firefighters plus 1 officer, or 3 Firefighters plus 2 officers) shall be on-duty at all times unless otherwise mutually agreed to in writing for the period of this contract.”
“The Union’s grievance is sustained. The City of Ogdensburg did violate Articles 18 (d) and (e) of the CBA. Upon receipt of this award the City of Ogdensburg will cease and desist from staffing each shift with less than a minimum of five bargaining unit members. It will also schedule each shift with a minimum of one Assistant Chief and one Captain, but only to the extent such positions exist,” Mr. Gorman wrote in his ruling to PERB in December.
Legal action between the union and the city began in 2020 and the city was granted a permanent stay of arbitration by state Supreme Court Judge Mary M. Farley on March 19, 2021. Local 1799 successfully appealed the decision in January 2022 before the state Appellate Division in Albany.
An application submitted by the city to have the case heard before the Appellate Division was denied.
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