Police may boycott NHL's Winter Classic
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City police officers are threatening to boycott the Winter Classic in dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers over holiday pay, raising questions about whether there will be adequate security at the nationally televised outdoor hockey game, which is due to draw tens of thousands of fans to Heinz Field on New Year's Day.
At issue is whether off-duty officers scheduled to work during the Jan. 1 Penguins game against the Washington Capitals will receive holiday pay, or 2 1/2 times their normal rate, which is what they are paid under their contract with the city to patrol on a holiday.
Even though it's a hockey game, the pay dispute involves the Steelers, who have a lease on Heinz Field.
The Steelers have proposed paying officers time-and-a-half, which is what they make working security at games that do not fall on holidays, said Sergeant John Fisher, who schedules 36 officers to work inside the stadium.
Mr. Fisher sent the officers an e-mail this week urging them not to work for anything less than holiday pay. He said he sent the note after conferring with Lieutenant Thomas Atkins, who schedules about 30 officers to work outside the stadium, directing traffic, among other duties.
"As of writing this, it appears as though we will not be working this event," Sgt. Fisher wrote. "Due to the fact that this is a major police holiday we have informed the Steelers and Heinz Field that the appropriate holiday pay rate is applicable. Heinz Field and the Steelers have balked at this rate and have indicated that they will not pay the same, they have taken a position where they want to dictate our pay rate to us and this simply cannot be permitted. ...
"I would implore all of you to stand together on this issue and not work this or any other detail, on a holiday, at a reduced rate. It would be unwise and foolish to break from this standard," he wrote.
Steelers spokesman Dave Lockett and Tom McMillan, the Penguins' vice president of communications, declined to comment on the security issue and referred all questions to the city. Public Safety Director Michael Huss was on vacation and declined to comment. City spokeswoman Joanna Doven referred questions to police Chief Nathan Harper's office, which referred questions to Mr. Fisher.
"This is a contractual issue," the sergeant said. "It's a major holiday, it's a difficult event, we're already working it understaffed. We have to hold our ground for all those reasons."
He said the Steelers have told him they intend to ask the city to assign the jobs through the police bureau's special events office, which would post the openings and allow officers to bid for them. At time-and-a-half pay, he noted, the work would be less attractive than other off-duty holiday jobs, most of which he said pay double time and a half.
For an officer working a typical game, it could mean the difference between making $283 at time and a half versus making about $472 at double time and a half.
"You should know that all other entities that request police on major holidays are willing to pay the applicable holiday rate," Mr. Fisher wrote in the e-mail. "These entities include the Pittsburgh Pirates, Pittsburgh Penguins, Rivers Casino and numerous smaller entities."
Any officer could bid to work during the Winter Classic if the special events office posts the openings. As it stands, Mr. Fisher and Mr. Atkins schedule officers to work all Steelers, Pirates and Pengiuns games, including the Winter Classic.
"It's a select and specific group of officers who are familiar with what needs to be done over there, where the trouble spots are and where the troublemakers are," Mr. Fisher said.
It is unclear how the city or the Steelers might fill the security void if the scheduled officers boycott. If too few officers sign up to work the detail through the special events office, the city could post on-duty officers at the game.
Police details at outdoor sporting events are some of the more challenging and undesirable, as they usually involve unpredictable weather conditions, alcohol and unruly fans, said Fraternal Order of Police President Dan O'Hara.
"When you ask us to participate in a large sporting event on a major holiday, we ask that we be compensated appropriately," Officer O'Hara said. "We're not asking for anything more than what the city is paying us to be out there on a holiday."
To work for a lower rate would set a bad precedent, Mr. Fisher said.
"It is not beneficial to us collectively as a group to allow any entity to dictate our rate of pay or to accept any amount less than what the police contract stipulates," he wrote in the e-mail to officers.
"The holiday pay rate is something that the FOP and our members have negotiated for and maintained and this should not be subject to scrutinization or loss because an entity feels that we are overcompensated. You have worked for this pay rate and are entitled to the same."
First Published November 5, 2010 12:00 am