Civil Service Suspensions: 5 Days Can Be 8 But Not 16
While, for the Beatles, eight days a week may not have been enough to show they cared, the Appeals Court has said that it is enough for a five-day suspension.
Civil Service law, Mass. Gen. Laws Chapter 31, § 41, allows a police or fire chief to suspend a tenured civil servant “for just cause for a period of five days or less without a hearing prior to such suspension.” [emphasis added]. The statute goes on: “Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays shall not be counted in the computation of any period of time specified in this section.” The employee is forced to serve the suspension but may (within 48 hours) appeal to the appointing authority for a hearing on whether the chief did indeed have just cause for the punishment. To suspend employees for more than five days or to demote or terminate them, the appointing authority must first hold a hearing before issuing those greater disciplines.
When the Andover fire chief issued a four-day suspension to a Lt. Thornton, he ordered that the four days be served on the lieutenant’s next four scheduled 24-hour shifts, spanning a 16 day period. Not surprisingly, the Civil Service Commission, by a 3-2 vote in an opinion written by Chairman Bowman, had no problem with allowing the chief to take away two weeks’ pay and prevent the lieutenant from working overtime or details for 16 days, all as part of a four-day suspension without a hearing.
This punitive interpretation was first overturned by the Superior Court and then, last week, by the Appeals Court. In Thornton v. Civil Service Commission, Justice Rubin, writing for a 2-1 majority of the three-judge panel, made this Solomonic observation: “Whatever a suspension of ‘a period of five days or less’ is, it is not a suspension under which an employee may not work for sixteen days.”
The Appeals Court decided that the five-day suspension period means five consecutive calendar days, excluding weekends and holidays. A five-day suspension could run from Monday through Friday, Tuesday through the next Monday (remember weekends don’t count), etc. The decision has the practical effect of letting the chief, for the most part, take away a week’s pay and prevent the employee from working overtime/details for the same week. This does raise the question: If weekends and holidays don’t count as part of the suspension period, why should employees also be suspended on those days and prohibited from performing extra work on them?
While the decision is not perfect, it is a reasonable attempt at applying a statute obviously geared to people who work Monday through Friday, nine to five, to the “four and two” and “24 hour” shifts, which did not become prevalent until long after 1978, when the statutory language was written.
One problematic aspect of the Appeals Court decision is language permitting the chief to begin the suspension on a particular day of his/her choosing. An overreaching chief could, therefore, begin an alleged miscreant’s five-day suspension on Tuesday, October 4. Because of the weekend/holiday exclusion and the October 10 Columbus Day holiday, it could run through Tuesday, October 11. If the employee were returning to his/her “four-and-two” on the 4th, it could actually cost six days’ pay and, depending on the contract, the holiday pay also.
Suffice it to say that the Appeals Court has reduced a “five-day suspension” from sixteen to, at most, eight days. It’s at least a step in the right direction