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Pa.: Emmaus Firefighters’ Employee Status Challenged by Borough

By Rita Zeidner   7/22/2014
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The ink was barely dry on a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) hearing examiner’s decision giving firefighters in Emmaus, Pa., employee status — and the right to unionize — when the borough cried foul.

In a 25-page appeal filed with the full Labor Relations Board in late June, borough attorney Thomas Kinkelacker argued that PLRB hearing examiner John Pozniak improperly gave the firefighters employee status, even though they were never hired. 

Borough officials also have claimed that even if the firefighters are employees and not volunteers, they are employees of the fire department, not the borough.

The case now goes to the full Labor Relations Board, where it can be upheld, overruled or modified. 

In his April 11 ruling, Pozniak enumerated a number of factors that support employee, rather than volunteer status for the city’s three-dozen firefighters. Among them:

*Borough officials exercise control over the workers’ terms and conditions of employment.

*The firefighters are paid an hourly wage.

*The borough has established rules, regulations and standard operating procedures that are binding on the firefighters.

*The borough has the authority to discipline anyone in the fire department who violates borough policy.

*A firefighter who is not happy with the disciplinary decisions of a fire chief can appeal to the borough manager.

*The fire department’s budget is controlled by the borough.

Such factors suggest that the borough is at least a “joint employer,” hearing examiner John Pozniak concluded.

Soon after Pozniak rendered his ruling, members of the fire department voted for union representation.

If employee status for the firefighters is upheld, the will have the right to bargain with city over such key matters as wages, benefits, scheduling and leave.

Base pay for the firefighters currently is $9.75 an hour, but more highly skilled staff may be paid more. In 2012, the lowest paid Emmaus firefighter received $10 an hour and the highest hourly rate was $15.

In the Matter of the Employees of Emmaus Borough, Pa. Labor Relations Board, No. PF-R-13-100-E (April 11, 2014).

 Rita Zeidner is a freelance business writer and former senior writer for HR Magazine.
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