Fla. City Ordered to Rehire Laid-Off Firefighters
Laura Isensee - The Miami Herald

Posted: Fri, 04/29/2011 - 03:03am
Updated: Fri, 04/29/2011 - 03:03am


April 28--In December, Hialeah fired 16 senior firefighters, a move Mayor Julio Robaina said would save money in tight economic times.

Now Hialeah must rehire the firefighters and reimburse their back pay, according to a Fort Myers-based arbitrator, who found the city failed to show any analysis of savings from the layoffs.

"The City failed to have just cause, cause and good cause," wrote Robert Hoffman in his April 21 decision that the city violated contract rules.

In his own analysis, Hoffman found the savings were much less than $500,000 and "may be none at all," partly because the city would have to give separation pay and then rehire to maintain staffing.

"Such a financial result used to lop off much of the supervisory and experience of this critical City department can hardly be deemed efficient for the citizens of this City and thus fails as a decision to terminate employees for 'any cause,'" Hoffman wrote.

In December, the city estimated the layoffs could save up to $2.5 million. The layoffs came right before the union voted on a proposed contract with $4.4 million worth of concessions.

In total, 17 firefighters were fired. All were enrolled in Hialeah's deferred retirement program, called DROP, which allows city employees to work as retirees for up to three years. During that time, the city does not contribute to their pensions, though the pensions accrue interest.

In termination letters, Robaina explained the "economic reasons" for their dismissal. "Since you are receiving a pension of 75 percent of your final average compensation, I recognize that you are in such better position to sustain your livelihood than an employee who would be terminated without any pension income," Robaina said in December.

The union, Hialeah Association of Firefighters IAFF Local 1102, and the firefighters filed a grievance over the matter, which went to arbitration.

Hoffman decided that the city failed on various counts, including:

* to make any cost analysis showing what savings the terminations would generate;

* to establish the cost-savings were legitimate reasons and financially efficient;

* to account for related costs that would reduce any savings, such as separation pay to the laid-off firefighters;

* to give proper advanced notice; and

* to include any employees who were not enrolled in the city's deferred retirement program.

Mario Pico, president of the union, said the department is looking forward to having the veteran firefighters -- all with 25-30 years of experience -- back to work. "The guys are ready to come back. They're prepared," Pico said.

Since their dismissal, the city has had to pay more overtime to cover their positions, which included district chiefs, captains and lieutenants. Overtime pay from December through March reached $470,000.

In previous contracts, both the city and the union have agreed that the arbitration of grievances is final and binding.

The city, however, is considering its next step. "We are evaluating all available options in order to protect all of the interests of the residents of Hialeah," Robaina said in a statement.

He added he was proud of the city's fire department, which the state recently recognized for its emergency medical services.