ALBANY -- The "no-layoff" clause in a union firefighters' contract doesn't explicitly protect them from having their municipal jobs eliminated due to budget constraints, New York's top court ruled Thursday.
The clause in the five-year agreement said: "The village shall not lay-off any member of the bargaining unit during the term of this contract."
The Court of Appeals, divided 4-3, concluded the Johnson City firefighters who filed a grievance over the six lost jobs aren't entitled to arbitration. The four judges, reversing lower courts, said the clause is ambiguous and doesn't explicitly protect the firefighters from the abolition of their positions.
"Indeed, the parties' disagreement over whether the term 'layoff' constitutes a permanent or non-permanent job loss, and whether the village's abolition of the firefighter positions constituted a layoff, underscores the ambiguity," Judge Eugene Pigott Jr. wrote. "Moreover, the clause does not comprehensively prohibit the village from abolishing firefighter positions, and, given its narrow and limited language, it cannot be construed as such."
Judges Victoria Graffeo, Susan Read and Robert Smith agreed.
In a dissent, three judges said a plain reading of the clause shows it should be deemed an unambiguous job security provision.
"At a time when the term 'layoff' pervades the public dialogue, typically signifying the kind of large scale public and private workforce reductions that have characterized recent economic crises, it is reasonable to conclude that the parties employed that term to succinctly but thoroughly address the threat of job insecurity," Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick wrote.
"Regardless, then, of whether' layoff' pertained to a temporary period of unemployment or a permanent job cut -- an issue of interpretation, which should be decided by an arbitrator -- the no-layoff clause at issue here should be deemed an explicit, unambiguous and comprehensive job security provision," Ciparick wrote.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Judge Theodore Jones Jr. agreed with Ciparick.
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