Local Leader Gets Job Back in Guardian Case

February 18 • 2019

In an arbitration case under the IAFF Guardian Policy, an arbitrator has found that Havre, MT Local 601 President D.J. Olson was wrongfully terminated by the City of Havre, awarding him reinstatement to his job with backpay and lost benefits.

Since 2015, city and fire department officials pursued a campaign to harass Local 601 officers, targeting Olson with unjustified discipline, often after he advocated and filed a grievance on behalf of the members.

In August 2017, Olson became district vice president of the Montana State Council of Professional Fire Fighters (MSCPFF). The next month, Fire Chief Mel Paulson and Assistant Chief Kelly Jones began to question the validity of his medical certifications.

Jones told Olson he would be the subject of a National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) investigation. However, when Olson spoke with a NREMT representative, he was told that no such investigation had been initiated. In November 2017, the department informed Olson that several records were missing from his station training and personnel files. Three weeks later, Olson found the documents in Jones’ file cabinet.

IAFF General Counsel Tom Woodley issued a cease and desist letter to city officials in January 2018. The response was to engage in more serious retaliation by terminating Olson. The IAFF pursued the matter to arbitration.

After a hearing, the arbitrator issued a favorable decision in January 2019 upholding the union’s grievance contesting Olson’s discharge. Although the city accused Olson of falsifying his state licensure certification papers, the arbitrator held that the city failed to provide evidence that Olson falsified his records. Further, the arbitrator noted that two other fire fighters accused of the same allegations received only a verbal and written warning, so termination was not justified.

The city had also accused Olson of insubordination and using profanity against the assistant chief. While Olson denied the allegation, the arbitrator held that even if he used profanity, Olson’s behavior did not warrant termination and “would ordinarily be dealt with by counseling or minor discipline.”

Lastly, the city accused Olson of gross negligence when he did not have a fire apparatus in ready-to-respond condition by the end of his shift as an acting captain. Although the arbitrator did agree that his crew should have continued to work on the apparatus and have the truck ready before the next crew arrived for its shift, the arbitrator held that it was a relatively minor infraction justifying no more than a five-shift suspension.

The arbitrator ordered Olson’s reinstatement to his position as engineer with 14 months of backpay and lost benefits and reduced the discipline to only a five-shift suspension.

General President Harold Schaitberger says, “The IAFF Guardian Policy continues to work in protecting our affiliate leaders from employers who retaliate against them for the role they perform for our members.”

IAFF 7th District Vice President Ricky Walsh notes, “This anti-union city and fire chief should learn a well-deserved lesson as a result of this favorable arbitration award.”