Target 11 Exclusive: City and police union at odds over health benefits

PITTSBURGH — The president of the Pittsburgh police officers union is firing back at the city, accusing them of denying health care benefits for widows of retired police officers, even after an arbitrator ordered the city to pay up.

City attorneys were back in court today after requesting an emergency hearing to ask a judge to halt the payments to the widows.

The case began last year, when retired Pittsburgh Police Officer Gary Rupert suddenly passed away.  His wife, who is in her 50s, soon discovered that the city had stopped her medical coverage.

She then reached out to the police officers union.

“They denied her medical coverage. She contacted me. We did some research and found out that other widows similarly situated were also denied benefits. We reached out to the city. The city ignored us and I filed a grievance, and it brought this to litigation,” said Bob Swartzwelder, president of the police officers union.

The city has claimed in court documents that the collective bargaining agreement with police doesn’t specifically address widows of retirees, and they said there’s been a longstanding practice of providing medical coverage for spouses only during the retiree’s lifetime.

The union disagreed, claiming the benefit is clearly covered in the contract. The union filed a grievance against the city and arbitrators agreed with the union, ruling that the city must provide health care benefits to widows of retirees.

The city appealed the decision and a judge upheld the arbitrator’s ruling. On Monday, the city was back in court asking a judge to issue an emergency stay that would essentially allow the city not to pay the medical benefits.

After hearing from attorneys for both sides, Judge Alan Hertzberg denied the stay. That means the city must begin covering the medical benefits.

Outside the courtroom, Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle questioned the city attorney.

“Why does the city believe that they should not have to pay these health benefits?,” asked Earle.

“Our arguments are a matter of public record and we’d be happy to share that. We’re not prepared to give comment right now,” said Assistant City Solicitor Wendy Kobee.

Swartzwelder said he was pleased by the decision, but concerned that the city continues fighting it.

“This poor widow and other widows currently do not have benefits. It’s outrageous. The Gainey administration should be ashamed of themselves. The law department should be ashamed of themselves,” said Swartzwelder.

It’s unclear how many widows of retired officers have been impacted, but the union said they are aware of a handful.

We reached out to the Gainey administration to get clarification on this issue, but they declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

That’s an indication that the city will likely appeal the ruling to Commonwealth Court.

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