An Employment Court ruling that firefighters should be granted a day off for each public holiday they work could have implications for other emergency services and shift workers. The New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union said the decision, issued on Tuesday, means all members are now owed significant numbers of days off which have been denied to them since April 1, 2004, when the new holidays legislation came into force.
In giving the decision, a year in the making, Judge Barrie Travis said it was “a test case”.
Each side has to pay its own legal bills.
Fire Service chief Mike Hall said yesterday the decision could cost the organisation between $3.5 and $5.5 million per year plus backpay.
The service may need to hire more firefighters in order to meet its commitments.
Mr Hall said the Fire Service had taken legal advice and would probably decide within three weeks whether to appeal the ruling.
Meanwhile, other unions representing emergency workers were seeking legal advice today on the decision and potential implications for their members.
Karl Andersen advocate for the National Distribution Union, one of three representing ambulance officers, said he had not had time to examine the decision in detail but planned to confer with lawyers today.
“There are going to be a lot of other people affected by it, particularly those working continuous shifts,” he said.
“Many contracts have days in lieu built into ordinary leave but this decision could turn that around.”
The union said significantly, the court also rejected the employer’s argument that public holidays begin at 8am in the Fire Service.
However, Police Association president Greg O’Connor said he had been advised the ruling was “not relevant” to his members.
“We operate in a different sort of environment.”
The police union does have its own Employment Court case coming up shortly with regard to the Holidays Act.
Police officers are arguing they should be paid time-and-a-half for working public holidays.
At present they do not receive penal rates.
Union secretary for the Professional Firefighters Union, Derek Best, said the decision had been on the side of natural justice.
Firefighters are rostered to take 14 days holiday every 160 days – but they have no choice about when they take this leave.
The Fire Service had argued that this provision covered any public holidays worked.
However, the court supported the union’s position that firefighters working any part of a public holiday should be entitled to a full day off in lieu.
Mr Best said it was unfair that a firefighter who happened to be on leave on a public holiday did not get another day off.
“It would be as if someone working Monday to Friday who worked through a public holiday was told they could have their day off in the weekend.”
The decision means that any member who has worked on any public holiday since April 1, 2004, is entitled to a full day off in recompense.
There are provisions in the new Holidays Act which may allow some of those to be sold to the employer for a cash payment, although the details of this will need negotiation with the Fire Service.
Mr Best said the final legal costs for the union had yet to be determined but were likely to be “close to six figures”.
“This certainly represents value for money for our members – they will each be getting back pay equating to about five times their annual union membership fee….
“It goes to show that we may have these statutory requirements, but you can’t just assume they will be implemented. We have to stand up for our rights.”