Duluth ordered to enter binding arbritation with union over health-care benefitsDULUTH, Minn. — The battle between the city of Duluth and its retirees over health-care benefits has moved to a new front — arbitration. Sixth Judicial District Judge John DeSanto ordered the city to enter binding arbitration with Local 101 of the International Association of Firefighters last week. But the outcome of those proceedings probably won’t be known for several weeks.
By: By Peter Passi, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
DULUTH, Minn. — The battle between the city of Duluth and its retirees over health-care benefits has moved to a new front — arbitration.
Sixth Judicial District Judge John DeSanto ordered the city to enter binding arbitration with Local 101 of the International Association of Firefighters last week. But the outcome of those proceedings probably won’t be known for several weeks.
The dispute stems from a request made by the union on behalf of three firefighters who were considering retirement: Lee Youngbloom, Darrel Youngbloom and Robert Thornton. They asked the city for written assurances that if they retired under the terms of the 2007-2009 contract, their health insurance coverage would continue unchanged as it currently exists, even if future employees’ benefits were later modified.
The 2007-2009 contract is still in effect, as the city and the firefighters’ union have not come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. Erik Simonson, president of Local 101, characterized current talks as “inactive right now.”
The union points to language in the current contract that says eligible retirees “will receive hospital-medical benefit plan coverage to the same extent as active employees,” with the cost of that coverage borne by the city.
City Attorney Gunnar Johnson contends the union’s interpretation runs counter to a recent appellate court decision about city employees who retired between 1983 and 2006.
In his filing, Johnson said: “The court found that under the plain and ordinary meaning of the collective bargaining agreement contract language, the plaintiffs’ health benefits are not fixed and governed by the plan in place on the dates of their retirements, and the collective bargaining agreement contract language does not prohibit the city from changing or modifying the health insurance plan provided.”
“We think this is familiar ground,” Johnson said. “We brought our questions to the district court and made our arguments several times, but we ended up where we are.”
In his decision, DeSanto said: “The court is of the opinion a valid grievance exists.”
On Nov. 9, union and city representatives made their cases to an arbitrator, Frank Kapsch Jr. The two sides now will have until Dec. 1 to submit a written brief to Kapsch, who will take the arguments into consideration.
Simonson said he expects to learn of the arbitrator’s decision toward the end of this year, but there is no set timeline for a ruling.
One of the plaintiffs, Lee Youngbloom, has already retired. But the case could affect several undecided firefighters with enough time on the job to consider retirement. Simonson estimated somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 firefighters qualify for retirement. That’s equivalent to roughly 15 percent of the force.
“A number of people are waiting to learn what happens,” Simonson said.
Peter Passi is a reporter for the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune which is owned by Forum Communications Co.