Local fire and rescue district disputes claims of anti-union bias and preferential treatment of non-union employees

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Crook County Fire District responded to more than 40 individual allegations made by the Crook County Firefighters Association union.

The Crook County Fire and Rescue District disputes many of the allegations filed against them in a complaint to the State of Oregon Employment Relations Board.

The Crook County Firefighters Association, a union comprised of multiple CCFR employees that was formed in September 2016, filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the local fire district this past April. This is the second complaint filed with the Oregon Employment Relations Board against CCFR in the past calendar year. The first complaint was settled before a hearing took place.

The association alleges that Fire Chief Matt Smith has voiced his opposition to forming a union on multiple occasions and claims that he has retaliated against members of the union since its inception. Smith is accused of levying stricter discipline against union members and initiating investigations for issues that had historically not prompted them. The association also alleges that he has withheld promotions from union members who met the qualifications for the positions the district was filling.

The district filed its Respondent's Answer and Affirmative Defenses document with the Employment Relations Board on Aug. 20. In it, the district addresses and rebuts more than 40 complaints filed against Smith and other CCFR leadership.

Several of the answers deny that the district actively opposed the formation of a union and has retaliated against union members since it was formed. One example referenced a December 2012 meeting where formation of a union was discussed. Smith is accused of saying "the threat of an association is better than an actual association."

In response, the district acknowledges that quote was said, but disputes its proximity to the meeting and believes it was taken out of context.

"The chief will testify to the correct context and explain the quote in relation to the joint discussion and collaboration on setting wages and benefits prior to unionization," the answers and defense document stated.

The district went on to dispute claims about CCFR leaders enforcing rules more strictly for union members than employees not affiliated with the association. The union said statements made by Smith in June 2013 that he would "have to" enforce rules more strictly were "a clear threat that he would discipline employees more aggressively if they unionized."

In response, the district says the conversation was taken out of context and that Smith "will testify that the discussion generally discussed 'at-will' status compared to contractual status of an employee under a collective bargaining agreement."

"The chief denies any threat of enhanced discipline or retaliatory actions toward unionization," the district stated.

Other allegations by the association claim that Smith "began initiating formal investigations into workplace issues that never would have resulted in an investigation before the association was formed," and that he "responded to other more serious allegations of misconduct involving supervisors or non-supporters of the association informally and often without any discipline at all."

The district denied an "earlier threats to investigate and discipline employees" for joining the union, and went on to highlight new elements in the association's collective bargaining agreement that prompted the need for more formal investigations.

"The new CBA requires elements of 'just cause' and 'due process' in order to sustain disciplinary action, which is a higher burden than the previous standard of 'at-will' employment and subsequently leads to more formality," the district states. "This formalized process actually benefits employees in providing increased protections of due process, including association representation in disciplinary investigation and the obligation to meet the elements of just cause. The use of an outside investigator also helps reduce claims of internal bias in the fact-finding process."

The association also alleges that Smith and others involved with promoting CCFR employees gave preferential treatment to staff not affiliated with the union. Smith is accused of "repeatedly refusing to promote employees he perceived as active in or supportive of the activities of the association."

In its complaint, the association referenced several instances where union-affiliated employees seeking promotion scored higher marks than other applicants in the Civil Service process but lower score in the "subjective" interview portion of the process.

The district, in response, "denies any anti-association bias in promotional opportunities," and points out that both the president and vice-president of the union received promotions to lieutenant in 2013. Regarding instances in 2017 when non-union members were selected to fill vacated captain positions, the district denied allegations that "a low-ranking score was a result of any anti-association bias." The answers and defense document further states that the district "does not promote or encourage any anti-association bias with the interview panel."

The association referenced another promotion to fill a lieutenant position this past February, alleging preferential treatment to employees that do not support the union. The complaint states that Smith "decided not to select the top candidate on the civil service list … but instead chose to promote the second-place candidate…"

Explaining Smith's decision, the district points out that the employee scored the highest marks in the civil service process, but the oral board ranked him below two other candidates. The answer to the allegation went on to note that as fire chief, Smith conducted interviews for the secondary round of the hiring process, and he "is not bound by the initial ranking in the initial states and proceeds with independent interviews."

"He conducted interviews for each candidate and provided ranking for each based on a series of criteria," the answers and defense document states, adding that the union-affiliated employee scored 14 percent lower than the top candidate, resulting in the employee not supportive of the union getting the job.

"There is no evidence that correlates this promotional to anti-union animus," the district stated.

Though the district addressed many specific allegations, the answers and defense document calls for many of them to be disregarded due to the time the alleged incidents took place.

"…ALL allegations and assertions of anti-association animus conduct outside the 180-day statute of limitations are not the basis for a valid claim and should not be admitted as evidence to establish a prima facie case or as evidence to meet the elements and burden of proof required upon the complainant."

The district goes on to note that the unfair labor practices complaint was filed on April 23, 2018, so all matters alleged prior to Oct. 25, 2017, should be disregarded.

According to association president Chad Grogan, a hearing on the unfair labor practices complaint will take place Oct. 15-17.

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