A state appeals court has agreed a compliance officer misinterpreted an arbitrator’s award, so a state labor panel was not wrong in overturning the officer’s decision to order the village of Oak Lawn to pay its firefighters $3 million more. 

The Illinois First District Appellate Court, in an unpublished order issued Aug. 12, said the Illinois Labor Relations Board was right to side with the village of Oak Lawn in a dispute with its firefighters’ union, the Oak Lawn Professional Firefighters Association, Local 3405. 

Justice Robert E. Gordon wrote the order; Justices Jesse Reyes and Bertina E. Lampkin concurred. The order was issued under Supreme Court Rule 23, which restricts its use as precedent, except under very limited circumstances permitted by the Supreme Court rule. 

The issue goes back to a 2008 negotiation, when the labor board determined the village committed an unfair labor practice by refusing to bargain over minimum staffing requirements, a mandatory bargaining subject under state law. As a three-year contract expired, the two sides were unable to agree on a new deal by the end of 2006. 

In December 2007, the fire chief said as of 2008 the village would no longer maintain at least 21 employees per shift and that any overtime required his approval. The union filed a grievance over that decision. That March, the village and union agreed to arbitration over a new contract to replace the 2003-2006 agreement. While submitting issues to be included in arbitration, the village did not include the minimum staffing issue, claiming it wasn’t a mandatory subject. 

That omission gave rise to the July 8, 2008, unfair labor practice charge that led to an Oct. 23, 2009, ruling against the village. 

At the time, the labor board ordered Oak Lawn to “rescind any changes it made to shift staffing and make whole any employees who incurred losses due to the violation” since September 2008. An arbitrator conducted a hearing to review the agreement and ordered the village to pay $285,867 in back pay to employees it had not called in to work overtime in order to meet minimum workforce obligations. 

In 2011, however, as the union sought to enforce the arbitrator’s award, a compliance officer said the village actually owed $3.2 million more in back pay. The village objected, prompting the union to seek to strike those objections; the union’s motion was denied. Upon review, an administrative law judge determined the compliance officer misinterpreted the arbitration ruling and recommended vacating the order; the state labor board adopted the recommended decision and order. The union appealed the decision stemming from that review. 

In assessing the union’s claim, the justices went back to a 2008 letter in which the union notified the village it would be operating with a minimum of 22 on-duty employees. But while the union maintained that decision was rooted in an arbitrator’s award, the justices noted the arbitrator found the village and union mutually modified the minimum requirement down to 21 workers. The union’s letter alone was not sufficient to change the minimum employee figure, but the minimum of 22 was used in determining $3 million in back pay was owed. Specifically, the compliance officer read the arbitrator’s award to mean a 21-employee minimum as well as a battalion chief. But Gordon wrote it is clear the arbitrator said the union contract counted the battalion chief as a shift commander and part of the 21. 

The justices also found the labor board was right to deny the union’s motion to strike the village’s objections because Oak Lawn “was not relitigating the merits” of what was subject to mandatory bargaining, only trying to seek a ruling on the agreed minimum staffing level.

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