Village applauds arbitrator's rulings

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

Oak Lawn village officials are generally pleased with the findings of an arbitrator called in to settle several labor disputes with the local firefighters union involving issues such as wages, residency and minimum staffing.

The findings were discussed at the Jan. 10 village board meeting, and although everything did not go their way, officials such as Trustee Bud Stalker (5th), Mayor Sandra Bury and Village Manager Larry Deetjen said the decisions made by arbitrator Steven Bieiring will save taxpayers money while maintaining safety standards.

“Although we didn’t prevail in reducing the number of firefighters on an engine rather than four, the numbers weren’t raised, either,” said Stalker, the fire department liaison on the village board. He said that Oak Lawn is one of the only municipalities that have four firefighters per engine. He maintained that higher numbers are not needed because neighboring fire departments also respond to Oak Lawn calls as part of the mutual assistance agreements they share.

“The net result is, we have more firefighters than we need (at many incidents),” said Stalker.

The union sought approximately $3.2 million in back pay for hours not worked, due to the staffing levels that were upheld. But that will not have to be paid now.

“We’re very satisfied that this most recent decision means there will not be any added staffing costs beyond those already incurred. The union was forced to acknowledge in this case that there is no need to increase the staffing levels from their current levels. The arbitrator’s award, like our previous court victories, locks in that principle,” said Deetjen.

Fire Chief George Sheets said in a statement that he still would like to see staffing levels brought down to three per engine, and plans to negotiate for that as soon as possible. The fire chief, who splits his time between Oak Lawn and Chicago Ridge, said every department he has worked in assigns three firefighters per engine, and there is no safety issues involved.

“The arbitrator gave a mixed response but the village is happy,” said Stalker.

He added that the village also prevailed on the health insurance issue, in that members of Oak Lawn Professional Firefighters Local 3405 will now have to raise their contribution to their health insurance costs from 10 percent to 12.5 percent.

“Residents need to know this is a significant victory for us. There are many challenges ahead. Our pension obligations are astronomical. But we’re going to work on that,” said Stalker at the meeting.

Bury said that raising staffing levels would cost the village at least $500,000 more per year.

“We fought that and we won. We held the line. I really want to have good relations with all our unions, but we couldn’t afford it,” she said.

The mayor asserted that the village paid firefighters $2.6 million in overtime last year, but “because our pension system is so broken, it is cheaper to do that than hire more firefighters.”

The arbitrator also ruled in favor of the village’s proposal that employees must live in Illinois. The union had sought permission for members to live in Indiana.

Bury was happy about that, too.

“Employees will no longer be able to take their taxpayer dollars to live in Indiana,” she said. “Oak Lawn is a beautiful community, with fantastic schools, great shopping and excellent dining. We have so much to offer right here in town.”