Hefty fine looms over fire department as labor board reviews union dispute

The Honolulu Fire Department may have to pay a hefty fine that ultimately lands on the backs of taxpayers.

It's the result of a dispute between the union and the fire department administration.

The Hawaii Labor Relations Board is suggesting a fine of up to $20,000 for violating state laws on union meetings.

So what sparked the complaint and proposed fine?

The board heard two grievances from the union. One was related to allegedly kicking members off property. That ruling came back in favor of the fire department.

But the second grievance could result in a big fine once the final ruling comes down, which is still pending.

Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, says the labor complaint came after the fire chief restricted union meetings at the fire stations until after 5 p.m.

"This issue is very surprising because all unions, public and private, have the right to go onto the job site, the work sites, and talk to their members," Lee said.

In a memo the administration sent to the union last year, the chief says the rule was to stop union officials from interfering with daily operations and maintenance, and suggested meetings be held off property instead.

"We do it this way because it is the best way to do it, so that we won't impact public safety and our firefighters responding," Lee said. "We don't take them away from the station. We don't separate them from their companies."

Lee tells us the Hawaii Labor Relations Board held a hearing at the ending of last year and found that HFD's "after 5 o'clock" rule violated state law.

The board recommends that the department pay the state a penalty of $20,000, plus the union's attorney's fees and costs, which is possibly another $50,000.

Click here to view the board's order in its entirety.

"It's a $70,000-plus penalty that is very much unnecessary," Lee said. "It's just unfortunate that the public has to foot the bill for this."

HFD says it does not agree with the labor board's decision, and wanted to work together with the union to make sure meetings don't affect operations.

In the memo sent last year, Fire Chief Manuel Neves wrote, "If this new process does not work, arrangements can be made to coordinate releasing uniformed personnel to attend meetings at your facility."

So what happens next?

The union has until Jan. 15, 2018 to present its Proposed Findings and Conclusions and Request for Attorney's Fees. Then the city will have until March 30, 2018 to respond.

The board will then review each side's submissions with a decision to follow.

HFD says it's waiting for that final decision to decide its next steps.

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