Wyoming Supreme Court Faces Burning Question About Paid Firefighters

Today’s burning question: What does the term “paid firefighter” mean?

Answer: That issue is now before the Supreme Court of Wyoming in a dispute between career firefighters in Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Fire/EMS. The case is on appeal following a district court ruling that concluded that the term “paid firefighters” includes part-time and volunteer firefighters.

Jackson Hole Fire/EMS, was established in 2004 under a Joint Powers Agreement between the Town of Jackson and Teton County. In 2015, career firefighters sought to form a labor union in part because local officials had been unilaterally changing their benefits and working conditions.

Wyoming law allows firefighters to organize:

WY Stat § 27-10-102

The fire fighters in any city, town or county shall have the right to bargain collectively with their respective cities, towns or counties and to be represented by a bargaining agent in such collective bargaining as to wages, rates of pay, working conditions and all other terms and conditions of employment.

The law defines firefighters as follows:

WY Stat § 27-10-101

The term “fire fighters” shall mean the paid members of any regularly constituted fire department in any city, town or county within the state.

Local officials were not happy that the firefighters were organizing, and perhaps sensing an opportunity to obstruct the process argued that the appropriate bargaining unit should include all firefighters, not just the full-time firefighters.  The officials argued that part-time firefighters were “paid members”, as were volunteers because they received some compensation. Thus, both groups had to be included under § 27-10-102 as part of the bargaining unit.

A district court judge agreed with local officials, prompting the fledgling IAFF local to file an appeal with the Supreme Court of Wyoming.

Jim Edwards, the attorney for the fire protection district board, argued in favor of all firefighters being in the bargaining unit. The Casper Star Tribune quoted him as arguing to the Supreme Court:

  • The word in the statute is “members”.
  • It’s not “employees.”
  • They volunteer, they work and they fight fires just like everybody else.
  • You’d think they would want them for strength in numbers.
  • They are saying they aren’t paid because they make a little bit of money.
  • These people are paid members of the firefighting district.
  • It’s clear they should be included in the vote.

The union’s lawyer, Sara Faulman, was quoted by the Casper Star Tribune as arguing:

  • When we’re thinking about collective bargaining we’re talking about people who have the same interests.
  • When we have two such wildly divergent groups they would not make an appropriate bargaining unit.
  • The volunteers are not included in any of the compensation plans.
  • They are automatically enrolled in a separate association.
  • There is nothing stopping the volunteers from organizing.
  • The Legislature meant paid members.
  • [Volunteers are reimbursed]… They are not [paid] wages

A ruling is expected later this year. Stay tuned.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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