East Bay fire union wins hefty payout in hard-fought legal victory

A longstanding legal dispute between Contra Costa County and a fire district union has concluded, entitling some employees to a major payday that includes raises, benefits and back pay.

About a dozen battalion chiefs represented by the United Chief Officers Association had alleged in the late 2000s that they were unfairly denied raises and benefits because they unionized. Late last year, the county petitioned the California Supreme Court to review a public labor board decision that sided with the employees.

The court in January declined to take up the case, effectively ending the litigation.
With all is said and done, the original dozen and 33 other current and former Contra Costa Fire Protection District employees who belong to the union will begin receiving what they always maintained they were owed.

“It’s been quite a journey,” said Rich Songsteng, a retired fire battalion chief who joined the union two years after the original complaint and eventually served as president. “I’ve been fairly confident, and our attorney was fairly confident, the whole way.”

The union members say no one has figured out exactly how much they will receive. Multiple attempts on Friday to receive comment from the county were unsuccessful.

But the payout looks to be substantial: In 2011, the 12 employees claimed in court that they were owed $140,000 — a total that, with back pay and interest, will be far higher in 2021, especially since dozens more employees are now eligible for the benefits.

Vito Impastato, the current union president, said the two sides’ attorneys have been working together to figure out the precise dollar amounts owed. The union keeps its members updated on a steady email chain, one that Songsteng said filled with messages of relief after the case finally came to a close this year.

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Firefighters work a vegetation fire south of Highway 4 at of the old Concord Naval Weapons Station in Concord in 2019. The fire crews were from Contra Costa County Fire Protection District and California Department of Forestry. (Dylan Bouscher/Bay Area News Group) 

Members of the United Chief Officers Association first claimed in 2009 that the fire district’s management, as well as the county administrator, had discriminated against their unionized status by denying them the same wage increase for 15 years of service that non-union employees had received.

In court documents, district officials countered that wage distinctions between represented and unrepresented employees were legal, so long as they didn’t extend to employment status.

An administrative law judge ruled in favor of the county in 2018, but a year later the California Public Employees Relations Board overturned the decision.

Despite the longstanding legal dispute, Impastato emphasized the good workplace relations between current employees and district leadership, including Chief Lewis Broschard.

“Sometimes it gets sticky and sometimes it doesn’t,” Impastato said, “but I believe that you can work through those things and have good relationships regardless of what happens.”

Songsteng, who served for three decades with the district, echoed Impastato’s sentiment. There were high tensions early on between the battalion chiefs’ union and the county administrator, but those have long since …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment


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