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John Bielski Philadelphia Labor Attorney Discusses Erie Pennsylvania Firefighters' Union Case

March 10, 2010

Judge Hears Oral Arguments in Erie Firefighter Case (Erie Times-News) 

By: Erica Erwin

The cost of an arbitrator's ruling requiring staffing changes in the Erie Bureau of Fire could cause the city "irreparable harm," a lawyer for the city argued Tuesday.

Richard Perhacs asked Erie County Judge Shad Connelly to postpone enforcement of Connelly's earlier decision affirming the staffing provisions of the award, while the city appeals the award in Commonwealth Court.
"If we go out and hire a bunch of people (to comply with the award) ... and if it turns out that four or five months from now the order gets reversed, how do we get the money back? You don't," said Perhacs, the lawyer who represented the city during its most recent arbitration with the local firefighters' union.
Perhacs' comments came after a 20-minute hearing in an ongoing case that has put Erie Mayor Joe Sinnott's administration at odds with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 293 over staffing mandates included in the firefighters' most recent contract reached in binding arbitration.
The firefighters' union is arguing that the city should be held in civil contempt of court for not complying with those mandates, which were to take effect Jan. 1. The city wants to wait to implement any changes while the appeal is pending.
John Bielski, the Philadelphia-based lawyer for the firefighters' union, said Tuesday that the appeal does not amount to an automatic stay of Connelly's Dec. 8 decision affirming the award.
He said Pennsylvania rules of appellate procedure do not allow a city to receive a stay of an order involving an affirmation of a labor arbitration or similar personnel matter.
Bielski said the city could comply with the staffing mandates in the award without hiring more firefighters. And even if the mandates did cost the city, that's no reason to not enforce them, he argued.
"You don't get irreparably harmed because something costs you money," Bielski said during the hearing.
Perhacs said he does believe the city is entitled to a stay and that Connelly could choose to issue a stay of his order affirming the staffing provisions at any time. He also said Connelly's courtroom was the wrong venue to argue the point.
If the union was unhappy with how the city was implementing the award, the union should have first filed a grievance that would have been decided by an arbitrator, he said.
Perhacs also said Connelly's order was a decision on what provisions in the contract were valid or invalid, not a directive to enforce the contract.
Bielski disagreed on both points.
"This is your order; you issued it," he told Connelly. "In order to enforce your order, I have to go to you."
The arbitrator's ruling, part of a four-year contract awarded in January 2009, required the city to increase firefighter staffing by adding a firefighter to every rig or adding a seventh company starting Jan. 1.
Arbitrator Michael Zobrak also ruled that the city must discontinue its "dual companies" in favor of single companies for safety reasons. Dual companies are those in which a single crew can respond with a ladder or pump truck, depending on the call. Two of the city's six companies are dual companies.
Erie Mayor Joe Sinnott has said that the staffing mandate could force the city to hire as many as 24 firefighters at a cost of up to $1.73 million in manpower alone in 2010. Lawyers for the union have disputed those numbers.
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