The COVID-19 pandemic has taken hold of our lives and has undoubtedly had an impact on First Responders from both a personal and professional standpoint.  Over the past several weeks, our firm’s attorneys have had the unique perspective of witnessing individual administrators from across the State of New Jersey exhibit fantastic leadership qualities, while other administrators have again proven to be the poor leaders that we always knew that they were. Unfortunately, the poor leaders panic in a state of crisis and believe that rules, regulations, statutory law and bargained for agreements no longer apply or have to be followed. When such situations occur, First Responders often bear witness and are victimized by administrations taking unwanted and unneeded liberties in operating their organizations. Such situations have resulted in blatant overt and attempted covert violations of collective negotiations agreements.  Suffice it to say, it is the poor leaders that believe that they can take what they want, act how they want, and make decisions unilaterally without consulting with the men and women that they lead.

However, on the other hand, we have been fortunate to witness certain outstanding leaders recognize and predict potential problems and issues and in turn, reach out to the men and women under their charge in an effort to resolve the problems together and tackle them head on for the betterment of all involved.  When administrators have taken the time to consult with Union Leadership, certain Locals have agreed to relax terms and conditions within their bargaining agreements in an effort to ensure operational efficiency and the protections of the First Responders and the public at large.  We are of firm opinion that agreed to temporary contractual concessions are not a sign of a Local’s weakness, but instead a sign of strength and the fostering of strong labor relations that are needed to accomplish the departmental mission.

Needless to say, because of such poor administrative leadership, our firm has found ourselves filing more grievances and unfair practice charges than we have had to file over the previous six (6) months prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. That being the case, we believe it is important to inform our members that, much to the chagrin of administration, the terms and conditions of your collective negotiations agreement do not fall by the wayside during a government declared state of emergency.

In reviewing this issue in detail, it must be noted that there is a dearth of case law on the specific subject of an administration’s engagement in illegal behavior by violating the terms and conditions of a collective negotiations agreement during a declared state of emergency. Guidance, however, can be taken from the case Robbinsville Twp. Bd. of Educ. v. Washington Twp. Educ. Ass’n, 227 N.J. 192 (2016). In Robbinsville, the Supreme Court held that the board of education’s unilateral alteration of a collectively negotiated agreement based on a declared financial crisis was illegal and constituted an unfair labor practice. In rendering their decision, the Court used very strong language and stated that managerial prerogative did not allow a public employer to “throw a collectively negotiated agreement out the window” during an economic crisis.

The Supreme Court went on to further state that “allowing a claimed need for management prerogative to prevail in tight budgetary times in order for municipal government policy to be properly determined would eviscerate the durability of collective negotiation agreements. The Legislature and the Court have, time and again, emphasized the value of collective negotiated agreements in society.”

In addition to the foregoing, NJPERC just issued an order on May 26, 2020, granting interim relief and restraining the Passaic County Sheriff from violating PBA #286 and #197’s collective negotiations agreement when he recalled both Union Presidents from full union release.  In the decision bearing Docket No.’s IR-2020-23, CO-2020-263 and CO-2020-264 the PERC Hearing Officer rejected the County’s arguments that managerial prerogative provided them with a sound basis to recall the two officer’s which eviscerated the terms of the two Union Contracts.  Instead, the Sheriff was restrained from engaging in his unlawful actions and the two President’s were returned to full release.

Based on the foregoing, protect the terms and conditions of employment that your Local has negotiated into your collective bargaining agreements.  If management wants to eviscerate your agreement by “taking without asking,” we know that your collective bargaining training will “kick in” and appropriate action will be taken to protect your rights.  The sooner management recognizes and respects your collective negotiations agreement, the sooner that they will learn the reasonableness and willingness of our Locals in ensuring that the mission and the protection of our citizens is always our top priority