Judge orders city to increase aid for firefighters healthcare fund

Firefighters start the work of cleaning up after the blaze affecting Willow Street houses.

As the Nutter administration and firefighters union get ready to duke it out in Commonwealth Court, a Philadelphia judge has ordered the city to make a lumpsum payment of $6.7 million to the union’s healthcare fund, as well as increase its monthly contribution to the fund.

Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters asked Common Pleas Court Judge Idee Fox to make the city implement an arbitration award that the Nutter administration is appealing to Commonwealth Court. Fox ruled today that the city must step up its aid for the distressed healthcare fund but did not touch the rest of the award, which also includes retroactive pay raises.

Mayor Nutter described the ruling as “a bit of a split decision” because Fox did not order the full award to implemented.

“That's the second time that that kind of relief has been pursued,” Nutter said of the firefighters’ attempts. “That did not happen ... which I think points out the larger issue, which is clearly many unresolved issues that are quite significant."

Local 22 President Joe Schulle said the union’s healthcare fund has dwindled during stalled contract talks from $28 million in 2009 to $2 million as of June. Without increased city contributions, he said, the union would have to cut benefits for firefighters or ask them to start paying $300 to $400 per month.

The ruling requires the city to increase its monthly contribution to the fund from $1,270 per employee to $1,619 per employee.

“We’re thankful to Judge Fox for siding with us on this issue,” Schulle said. “It reaffirms the court’s belief that the contract is fair and affordable, and that these are benefits that the firefighters and paramedics have earned, and that they shouldn’t have to fight for what they’ve earned.”

The firefighters, like the city’s non-uniformed blue- and white-collar unions, have been working without a contract since 2009. The administration has continually appealed decisions favorable to the union, arguing that the city cannot afford contracts without substantial savings in healthcare and pension costs.

The Commonwealth Court case begins Sept. 11 in Harrisburg.

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