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Third Lockport lawsuit against fire union pertains to health coverage

LOCKPORT – For the third time this year, the city has taken its firefighters union to State Supreme Court, this time attempting to block a union grievance over health insurance.

The Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association contends that the seven firefighters who were laid off at the beginning of this year lost their health coverage before they lost their jobs. The city denies it.

The laid-off seven worked until Friday, Jan. 3, the last day of the pay period, but union president Kevin W. Pratt contends the city cut off health coverage for the firefighters and their families as of Dec. 31.

“This is another one of those nuisance grievances that they file. It’s too bad,” said David E. Blackley, deputy corporation counsel in charge of labor issues. “We can’t give health insurance to people who don’t work for us.” Pratt doesn’t question that, but he said the timing didn’t match up.

“The grievance is not to give laid-off employees health care,” Pratt said. “The grievance was filed because there were federal laws that were broken. Their layoff notice stated they had full pay and benefits to the end of the work day Jan. 3. … They canceled their insurance while they were still employed by the city.”

He said the men received certified letters from the city Jan. 3 that told them their health coverage ended at the end of 2013.

“Prior to their layoffs, they had made doctors’ appointments, eyeglass appointments to take care of their kids and their wives and their families,” Pratt said. “They were taking their kids to the doctor Jan. 2, Jan. 3, and then they find out after the fact that the city already canceled their health care.”

He said that violated federal laws on notification.

Blackley insisted the seven firefighters were covered until their work ended. His lawsuit noted that none of the seven applied for COBRA, the worker-paid health coverage offered to people who lose their jobs.

The city’s lawsuit asks for a declaration barring the union from obtaining binding state arbitration on the issue.

It’s the same legal tactic the city has used in attempting to block a union grievance over a change in the eligibility rules to take the civil service exam for fire chief, and another grievance over whose job it should be to use garage door openers at the firehouse.

The city won a temporary stay of arbitration in the fire chief case. A hearing on how the change in rules occurred has been scheduled for Aug. 7 before Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr.

Kloch also has been assigned the new health insurance case, to be argued May 22. Justice Ralph A. Boniello III has the garage door case, set for May 7.