The Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) recently issued a decision which could have broad implications. The BMS ruled the part-time professional firefighters in the City of Brooklyn Park could vote to unionize. According to the BMS, thirty-one of the sixty-two part-time firefighters for the City fall under the definition of public employee found in state statute. The City of Brooklyn Park does not have a full-time fire department; it utilizes part-time professional firefighters. The firefighters set their own work schedules through seniority shift-bidding, so they control how many hours they work, and whether or not they would be in the union.
Minnesota Statute § 179A.03, Subd. 14(e) excludes from the definition of a public employee, “part-time employees whose service does not exceed the lesser of 14 hours per week or 35 percent of the normal work week in the employee’s appropriate unit.” The City of Brooklyn Park argued because the part-time firefighters do not work a regular schedule, but instead sign up for shifts based on seniority and set their own schedule, they didn’t qualify as public employees under the statute. The City of Brooklyn Park told the local Sun Post it isn’t opposed to the firefighters unionizing. It just wanted to make sure it had a clear understanding of this unique issue, which has not previously been explored in the state of Minnesota.
The recent ruling creates other concerns which may need to be addressed, such as how does an Employer manage when the union status of a part-time firefighter changes, because sufficient hours weren’t worked in the previous year to qualify as a public employee? Changes in union status may have an annual affect on firefighters’ wages. Additionally, the interpretation by the BMS that the statutory definition of a public employee is based on the requirement of working more than 14 hours per week in the majority of weeks worked by an employee is perplexing. The statute does not specify how many weeks a part-time employee has to work more than 14 hours to be part of a union. I know many management labor representatives, myself included, have interpreted the statute to mean a 1 year period (52 weeks), so, in order to qualify to be in a union, the part-time employee must work 728 hours. The Bureau’s interpretation greatly expands who can qualify as a public employee.
I spoke with City Manager Jamie Verbrugge to get his opinion on the recent decision. He told me the situation could turn out to be very problematic. The City requires firefighters to work approximately 20 hours per quarter. Scheduling is strictly bid by seniority, therefore the newer firefighters may never be able to obtain union status, because they would always be out bid for work hours by senior members of the department. Additionally, the City has a strong belief in internal equity in wages and benefits amongst its employees. The City has decided to not appeal the BMS decision, and will evaluate what needs to be done if the firefighters vote to join a union.
Manipulations of the bargaining unit by employees signing up for shifts could pose an interesting dilemma for the City. The firefighters will be voting later this month on whether or not they want to join a union. As a resident of Brooklyn Park, I will be following this issue closely.