Calling the case “a sobering and most unfortunate circumstance,” a labor arbitrator on June 6 upheld the 2015 termination of a North Riverside Fire Department lieutenant.
Michael Wisniewski, a North Riverside firefighter for more than 18 years, was fired in September 2015 for improperly snooping in the private email account of a subordinate and then lying about it when confronted.
North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714 filed a grievance with the Illinois Labor Relations Board on behalf of Wisniewski following his termination in an attempt to soften the discipline handed down by the village’s civil service commission.
However, Arbitrator Stephen L. Hayford, while stating that Wisniewski’s circumstance was one “worthy of empathy and compassion,” ruled he had no authority to reverse the Civil Service Commission’s decision in light of the evidence presented to him.
Wisniewski’s intrusion into the private email account and subsequent lying about it coupled with a June 2014 suspension for falsifying duty reports for a probationary firefighter who reported late for work twice “did provide the employer with just cause to terminate [Wisniewski’s] employment with the village fire department,” Hayford stated in his ruling.
The arbitration hearing was held Feb. 2 in North Riverside and post-hearing briefs were filed with Hayford by April 12. However, Hayford did not submit his ruling until last week.
North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr., who said the termination was warranted after the civil service commission’s decision last year, said, “It’s a shame that someone with that many years as a firefighter had to have his career end that way. But it’s not conduct that’s becoming of a village employee.”
J. Dale Berry, the firefighter union’s attorney, called the ruling “disappointing,” and referred to Wisniewski’s conduct as an “unfortunate, impulsive thing.”
At the arbitration hearing, the union claimed the harsh punishment handed to Wisniewski was motivated by the village’s wish to reduce its pension obligation and tied to the village’s two-year long campaign to privatize firefighting services.
If the dispute over privatization hadn’t been going on, the union contended, the punishment would have been lesser than that imposed.
The union also argued that the village didn’t use progressive discipline in coming to its determination to discharge Wisniewski.
However, the arbitrator rejected the union’s arguments, pointing to the suspension handed down against Wisniewski in June 2015, just five months before he was caught opening two emails from a subordinate’s email account.
Wisniewski not only opened the emails and then lied to the subordinate when confronted about it, Hayford states in his ruling, he also failed to notify the fire chief of the misconduct in the weeks and months following the incident.
As the No. 2 firefighter in command of the station on the date the emails were improperly accessed, Wisniewski had a duty to report the conduct, Hayford stated.
“The harsh reality is that having made the very serious mistake of accessing another firefighter’s personal email account without permission, there was simply no excuse for Wisniewski’s failure to immediately disclose and take responsibility for his actions,” Hayford wrote in his ruling.