By Bob Uphues
An administrative law judge for the Illinois Labor Relations Board has concluded that the village of North Riverside violated the law when it failed to offer three new firefighters a health insurance plan consistent with the union contract.
The judge also ruled that Mayor Hubert Hermanek violated the law when he threatened to fire the firefighters unless the union withdrew a labor complaint over the health insurance issue and then terminated a probationary firefighter who'd been unable to work for a period of time due to an injury he sustained on the job.
The ruling was in response to a February 2018 unfair labor practice complaint filed by North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714.
In her recommended decision and order, Administrative Law Judge Anna Hamburg-Gal called on the village to extend the terminated firefighter's probationary period and pay him back pay plus 7-percent interest. She also called on the village to offer the three new firefighters the health insurance coverage outlined in the most recent union contract.
Hermanek told the Landmark that the village intends on filing exceptions to the recommended decision and order by the end of May. Those exceptions will be taken into account by the Illinois Labor Board before it files a final order.
"We feel it was the wrong decision," Hermanek said.
Chris Kribales, the president of North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714, praised the ruling.
"It is one of the strongest rulings I've ever read as a union member. I believe the judge got it perfect," said Kribales, who is also a resident of North Riverside. "As a taxpayer it amazes me we can continue to find money to pay this law firm to lose time after time, yet due to budget restraints, we are cutting positions in the police station and fire station. When will this stop?"
The April 26 ruling was the latest in a series of labor actions filed with the state labor board by union firefighters against the village. The two sides remain locked in arbitration more than a year after the Illinois Supreme Court refused to consider the village's claim that it had a right to unilaterally terminate the union contract after reaching an impasse in negotiations.
Both sides continue to wait for a state labor arbitrator to rule on the question of the village's right to terminate the contract. Both sides last appeared before the arbitrator in mid-2018.
"I don't know why it's taking so long," said Hermanek. "The union is just as frustrated as we are."
North Riverside firefighters have been working without a contract since April 30, 2014. That summer the village proposed privatizing firefighting services by contracting with the same company that provides the village's paramedics.
The village filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court seeking a ruling that allowed the village to terminate the union contract because negotiations had reached an impasse. The village went so far as to issue termination notices for union firefighters, but delayed action until the lawsuit was decided.
In the end, the courts sided against the village and ultimately referred the matter to a labor arbitrator.
The latest union complaint against the village stemmed from the hiring of three new firefighters in January 2018 upon the recommendation of then-Fire Chief Tom Gaertner, who believed it would enhance safety, improve morale and reduce overtime costs.
Gaertner also considered hiring new firefighters as an "olive branch" from the village, which had been trying to eliminate the union for the prior four years. Hermanek, though apparently reluctant to hire anyone until a new contract was in place, agreed to hire Robert Gill, Christopher Johnston and Dimitri Tountas.
According to labor law, the village was obligated to offer the new firefighters benefits consistent with the most recent contract, which had expired in 2014. That contract called for firefighters to be offered a PPO health insurance plan with very low employee premium contributions and deductibles.
However, the village in 2016 had moved away from that plan for all new employees, offering them instead a different PPO plan as well as an HMO plan that were of less cost to the village.
It was those plans which were offered to the new firefighters. The village argued the new plans were substantially equal to the old plan.
A month after the new firefighters were hired, the union filed a grievance over the failure to offer them the old insurance plan. In March, according to the recommended decision and order, Hermanek expressed his displeasure to Gaertner, reportedly saying, "You need to have those guys pull the grievance and if they refuse, I'll begin firing people, these guys probably within the next week."
Hermanek did not fire anyone and both sides continued to negotiate a new contract and met with the arbitrator in June 2018.
Also in June 2018, firefighter Gill injured himself while working out on a patio adjacent to the firehouse workout room. A barbell fell on his back, fracturing a vertebra and requiring surgery and time in intensive care. A doctor ordered 32 weeks of recovery, rehabilitation and conditioning.
In January 2019, Hermanek terminated Gill, citing the most recent union contract. At the close of the termination meeting, Hermanek reportedly made a comment to the effect of "I hired three guys and get this bull---- with the insurance … things have consequences."
Firefighters Johnston and Tountas remain employed by the village of North Riverside.