Elgin fire union files complaint over hair policy dispute

  • Elgin Fire Chief John Fahy said the department's policy states members' personal appearance will be "neat and clean," which is why three firefighters recently were asked to cut their hair when they grew it long. Pictured is Elgin Fire Station 1 on Summit Street.

      Elgin Fire Chief John Fahy said the department's policy states members' personal appearance will be "neat and clean," which is why three firefighters recently were asked to cut their hair when they grew it long. Pictured is Elgin Fire Station 1 on Summit Street. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/15/2016 5:29 PM

The Elgin firefighters' union filed a labor complaint against the city after three of its members were told to cut their hair, which they had been growing to protest their 25-month lack of contract.

International Association of Firefighters Local 439 President Vince Rychtanek said he, Vice President Edward Hanson and Shop Steward Joe Villella started letting their hair grow sometime after April 2015 to protest that firefighters have been working without a contract since January 2014. The matter is in arbitration.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The three were ordered recently to cut their hair by their superiors, Rychtanek said, and Villella did so first, followed by Rychtanek and Hanson last week. The unfair labor practice complaint dated Feb. 9 is not about hair length per se, but about the department making grooming policy changes without first bargaining with the union, he said.

"We were all ordered to cut our hair. We're not going to disobey an order," Rychtanek said. "Grooming policies, nationwide they are understood to be a mandatory subject of bargaining. Whether it's firefighters' hair or cocktail waitresses and what dress they wear, those are subject to mandatory bargaining."

Fire Chief John Fahy said the department's policy states members' personal appearance will be "neat and clean."

Rychtanek said all three firefighters were ordered to cut their hair, but Fahy said that applied only to Hanson, who didn't comply when asked to do so by his battalion chief. Villella cut his hair late last year after a former assistant chief talked to him, and Rychtanek did so after being asked by his battalion chief, Fahy said.

"Rychtanek's and Hanson's hair got pretty out of hand -- shaggy, unkempt, long," Fahy said. "Their battalions chiefs told them, 'You got to meet the policy.' "

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Hanson directed all questions to Rychtanek.

Fire departments have different grooming policies, ranging from basic ones like Elgin's to detailed ones about hair length, piercings, tattoos and more, Fahy said.

"We don't have a hair problem within the Elgin Fire Department," he said. "We have 133 members, and we have three members that are angry about the process of arbitration."

Rychtanek agreed it's all about the pending contract. "Ultimately, we want (the city) to sit down and negotiate the contract. It's not that we want to grow our hair long."

The contract is stuck in arbitration over a provision regarding minimum manning, Rychtanek said. "It's despicable that firefighters have gone over two years without a contract," he said. "It's in arbitration, just like every one of the contracts except one on the 23 years I've been on the job. It's the way the city negotiates -- they arbitrate."

The complaint with the Illinois Labor Relations Board also names Mayor David Kaptain, who declined to comment on specifics. "I was never sued in my entire life until I became mayor, so it just goes on the list (of complaints) that I have."

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