Justice John A. Michalek has for a second time vacated an Award issued by a Public Interest Arbitration Panel chaired by Thomas Rinaldo. In 2002-2003, the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Professional Firefighters attempted to negotiate a contract for the period 2002 to 2004, but were unable to reach an agreement.
Pursuant to Civil Service Law, the dispute was submitted to interest arbitration, where a panel consisting of a neutral and a representative from each of the parties meet and issue an award, which determines the terms of the collective bargaining agreement for that period. In 2005, A Public Interest Arbitration Panel chaired by Thomas Rinaldo, issued an Award, signed by the City that forced the Buffalo Firefighters into a health insurance plan chosen by the City. The Buffalo Professional Firefighters challenged that Award. In 2005, Justice Michalek vacated that Award and, after several attempts by the City to reinstate the Award, the Court of Appeals affirmed the vacating of the Award, finding that the Panel should not have imposed the City’s health insurance plan on the Firefighters. The matter was remanded to be heard again by a panel chaired by Mr. Rinaldo. In 2011, the Public Interest Panel chaired by Mr. Rinaldo again heard the matter and issued a second Award. The Second Award did not include the imposition of the City’s health insurance plan. However, in both awards, the Panels found that the Firefighters were entitled to increases totaling 5.5% for the years 2003 and 2004. Both Panels also granted the City concessions that saved the City money.
On January 12, 2012, Justice Michalek vacated that second Award, finding that the Award failed to comply with the decision of the Court of Appeals, which he interpreted to require a ruling on health insurance. In a related ruling, Justice Michalek dismissed the Firefighters challenge to the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority’s Resolution that directed the City not to pay any back wages incurred because the wage increases granted by the Rinaldo Panel (even though Justice Michalek had vacated those increases). He ruled, in effect, that the wage freeze issued in April of 2004, applied to any and all raises granted to firefighters, even if those raises were for a period before the wage freeze was instituted and even if they were for a period before the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority existed. In other words, Justice Michalek ruled that the Buffalo Firefighters cannot receive any raises for an almost two year period before the wage freeze was instituted, as well as during the wage freeze. Justice Michalek based his ruling on the fact that, in 2004 when the wage freeze was first imposed, the Firefighters attempted to bring an action challenging the wage freeze, which was dismissed on the technicality that it was filed too late, even though the papers were timely presented to a Judge.
The Buffalo Firefighters are disappointed that there is still no resolution to this matter. The Firefighters of the City of Buffalo have not had a contract since 2002 and as of today, there seems to be no end to the court proceedings. The Buffalo Professional Firefighters were forced to challenge the original award because it improperly forced the Firefighters into a health insurance plan picked by the City. All of the Courts agreed with them and vacated the original award. The Firefighters could not have known at the time they challenged the original award that they would win their case yet find themselves further behind. The Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association, Inc. is still deciding on what course of action it will take in order to protect the rights of its members. The Firefighters of the City of Buffalo will selflessly continue to serve the public as they have in the past 10 years, even though they have had only a single pay raise of 5.5% (in 2007) in over ten years and the City is threatening to take away that raise. The Firefighters of the City of Buffalo deserve better. They deserve pay increases commensurate with the risks they take every day