Police pay travesty: Pittsburghers get cheated by another arbitration

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Once again, an incomprehensible ruling by a public safety arbitrator leaves the city of Pittsburgh no choice but to file an appeal.

This time the issue involves city police. Two officers filed multiple grievances claiming that they deserve extra pay because, during their regular shifts, they were assigned to perform the same tasks for which off-duty officers were getting a higher hourly rate.

The problem with their assertion is that the off-duty police were working private details, typically to direct traffic at events such as Steelers, Penguins and Pirates games. They were working extra jobs voluntarily on their own time, and their pay reflected that, equivalent roughly to time and a half.

By contrast, the officers, Robert Swartzwelder and David Lincoln, were on duty when their supervisors assigned them to traffic details. Inexplicably, arbitrator Philip W. Parkinson, sided with the officers.

Let's take his ruling to the next logical step. If officers should be paid based on the specific task they are performing, all officers on routine patrol would make the same amount, regardless of seniority. Presumably, all officers on desk duty would make less. That flies in the face of salary classifications that are pro forma in most bargaining agreements, and so does Mr. Parkinson's ruling.

City officials have been burned by arbitrators before.

In a notorious case, during a crippling 2010 snowstorm a city paramedic cavalierly dismissed calls for help from a Hazelwood man -- he eventually died -- yet an arbitrator ruled the city could not fire her.

In 2009, an arbitrator said the city couldn't suspend an officer who was drunk and chased down, assaulted and accidentally shot and wounded a man who'd punched the officer in a bar.

It's hard to imagine the city's union contracts are so porous that arbitrators' decisions utterly lacking in logic are too often the legal outcome. Yet unjust rulings just keep on coming.

In the latest case, the long-term remedy should be an overdue rewrite of the police bureau's policies for off-duty employment, a source of numerous abuses and slights.

On a broader scale, the public can only wonder what peculiarities are at work that keep producing arbitration awards that don't make sense. The city should pursue all recourse so taxpayers don't have to pay the price.



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