MATTOON — The city recently paid a total of $79,000 in compensatory damages to 32 current and retired firefighters in a Mattoon Fire Department staffing level case.
Meanwhile, the Mattoon firefighters union awaits the scheduling of an Illinois Labor Relations Board hearing, the outcome of which could affect the upcoming arbitration session for a new collective bargaining agreement with the city. They have been operating under the previous contract, which expired on April 30, 2018.
The staffing level case began on Feb. 22, 2018, when the city and Mattoon Firefighters Association Local 691 were in arbitration on union claims that the city failed to maintain minimum staffing of 30 firefighters as required by contract.
Arbitrator Gill Vernon found on April 9, 2018, that the city had violated this requirement and he ordered the city to bring staffing up to 30, from the low 20s. He also ordered the two parties to reach an agreement on a monetary penalty. The city and the union were unable to reach an agreement, and this dispute ultimately led to a hearing before Circuit Judge Matthew Sullivan on Dec. 3, 2019.
Sullivan granted the union's motion for summary judgment and the arbitration award that Vernon had issued on June 17, 2019. This remedy included $79,000 in damages for distribution among all current and former firefighters who served at the time in question. The city also was ordered to pay $19,059 in attorney fees for the union, $9,225 in reimbursement for lost union dues, and $3,900 in arbitrator fees.
The Mattoon City Council voted on Jan. 7 to pay the compensatory damages, which will be covered by the city's insurance fund. Bart Owen, president of the union, said approximately 22 current firefighters will be among those receiving shares of the compensatory damages.
"That solidifies the status we have now," Owen said, looking ahead to the arbitration process and staffing level negotiations for a new contract.
Owen said the next arbitration session will not be held until after the Illinois Labor Relations Board hears an appeal from the union. He said the union is appealing the board's 2018 dismissal of a unfair labor practice against the city. The charge had alleged that the city engaged in unfair labor practices when it eliminated the Mattoon Fire Department's ambulance service without providing notice to or bargaining with the union.
Arbitrator George Fitzsimmons ruled on April 18, 2018, in favor of the city's plans to eliminate the Mattoon Fire Department's ambulance service. This ambulance service was eliminated on July 25, 2018, as part of efforts to deal with city budget deficits. Mitchell-Jerdan Ambulance Service, a longtime provider in Mattoon, was part of the ambulance call rotation with the fire department's service and is now the sole provider in town.
City Council member Rick Hall, who serves as the commissioner for the fire department, said he is not sure yet how long the process of having an Illinois Labor Relations Board meeting and then going through the arbitration process for a new contract will take.
"We started negotiation in December of 2017," Hall noted.
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