Gault: Paramedic moves are a matter of spite

As a new year be­gins, the vast ma­jor­ity of Phil­adelphia Fire De­part­ment para­med­ics will be see­ing a change of scenery, ac­cord­ing to the head of the city’s fire­fight­ers and med­ics uni­on.

But it won’t be by choice.

In fact, Bill Gault, pres­id­ent of Loc­al 22 of the In­ter­na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Fire Fight­ers, thinks that the fire de­part­ment ad­min­is­tra­tion is im­ple­ment­ing wide-scale per­son­nel moves as a mat­ter of spite over a years-old law­suit in­volving the med­ics.

Ac­cord­ing to Gault, about 80 per­cent of the more than 200 act­ive med­ics will be re­as­signed to dif­fer­ent units throughout the city on Jan. 8 and 9. The fire de­part­ment no­ti­fied them of the re­shuffle months ago via memor­anda and asked each para­med­ic to sub­mit a list of five re­ques­ted as­sign­ments, Gault said.

At least 150 med­ics form­ally re­ques­ted to stay put.

“I have cop­ies of 150 memos (from med­ics) who want to keep their cur­rent jobs,” Gault said. “They all put, ‘I re­spect­fully re­quest to stay where I’m at.’”

The news­pa­per has asked the of­fice of Fire Com­mis­sion­er Lloyd Ay­ers to con­firm and ex­plain the trans­fers. The pa­per, however, was await­ing a re­sponse as it went to press.

An art­icle pub­lished by WHYY’s news­ last month cited un­named “city of­fi­cials” and re­por­ted “just shy of 75 per­cent of para­med­ics got their first or second choice of shift.”

A sep­ar­ate art­icle pub­lished last month by cb­ re­por­ted that the trans­fers are “the res­ult of a law­suit filed by para­med­ics two years ago which, in turn, promp­ted shift changes.” The art­icle cited Deputy Fire Com­mis­sion­er Ern­est Har­gett for the ex­plan­a­tion.

Gault agrees that the law­suit promp­ted the trans­fers, but not be­cause of shift changes. Rather, he in­sists, it’s the de­part­ment’s way of stick­ing it to the para­med­ics. Ul­ti­mately, it’s the com­mis­sion­er’s prerog­at­ive to trans­fer any­one at any time.

“The trans­fers are what they came up with with­in the last year, and it’s more re­tali­ation,” Gault said.

The uni­on lead­er ar­gues that mov­ing so many med­ics at once will cre­ate new, un­ne­ces­sary chal­lenges in their work. There are about 40 field-med­ic units throughout the city.

“Some (med­ics) from the air­port are go­ing to Fishtown. Some from the North­east are go­ing to North Philly. Some from Roxbor­ough are go­ing to the North­east and to North Philly,” Gault said. “All of their lives are be­ing dis­rup­ted.”

Med­ics will have to learn how best to nav­ig­ate their new neigh­bor­hoods and de­vel­op new rap­ports with hos­pit­al per­son­nel in those com­munit­ies. And most med­ics will be get­ting new part­ners.

“Their part­ners are the most im­port­ant thing, the guys they work with,” Gault said.

The law­suit ac­tu­ally ori­gin­ated about nine years ago when para­med­ics, in­de­pend­ently from Loc­al 22, sued the fire de­part­ment and the city over their over­time pay.

In the class-ac­tion suit, the med­ics ar­gued that the Fair Labor Stand­ards Act en­titled them to a high­er over­time pay rate than they were re­ceiv­ing as rank-and-file Loc­al 22 mem­bers. The suit dis­tin­guished the med­ics from fire­fight­ers based on job re­spons­ib­il­it­ies.

After a lengthy leg­al battle, the U.S. Third Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals ruled in the med­ics’ fa­vor in Decem­ber 2008. The city paid out mil­lions in back over­time com­pens­a­tion to the med­ics.

Three months later, the city pe­ti­tioned the Pennsylvania Labor Re­la­tions Board to have med­ics re­moved from the Loc­al 22 col­lect­ive-bar­gain­ing unit be­cause, by their own con­ces­sion in the FLSA suit, the med­ics did not par­ti­cip­ate in “fire sup­pres­sion” or fire­fight­ing. The PLRB ruled in the city’s fa­vor, but Loc­al 22 ap­pealed that de­cision to Com­mon­wealth Court. The case re­mains pending.

Gault notes that fire­fight­ers are sub­ject to Pennsylvania’s Act 111, which af­fords them bind­ing con­tract ar­bit­ra­tion, but bans them from strikes. Phil­adelphia’s med­ics are still un­der the Loc­al 22 um­brella, but, be­cause of the PLRB de­cision, are now sub­ject to Act 195, which al­lows them to strike but re­quires more ex­tens­ive con­tract ne­go­ti­ation be­fore bind­ing ar­bit­ra­tion can be­gin.

In the mean­time, Gault said, the de­part­ment has mod­i­fied para­med­ics’ work sched­ules to cut back their over­time.

Pre­vi­ously, med­ics worked the same ro­tat­ing shifts as fire­fight­ers: two 10-hour days (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.), fol­lowed by two 14-hour nights (6 p.m. to 8 a.m.), then four con­sec­ut­ive days off. Now, med­ics work steady 12-hour shifts in a three-on, two-off, two-on then two-off series.

The sched­ule change has not been a ma­jor source of com­plaints, ac­cord­ing to the uni­on lead­er. He claims that about 20 med­ics as­signed to the steady night shift have asked to be moved to day work. He is un­aware of any day work­ers that have re­ques­ted night shifts.

Fur­ther­more, Gault said, there are 40 to 50 un­filled para­med­ic po­s­i­tions in the fire de­part­ment. So the de­part­ment could have ac­com­mod­ated the 20 shift-change re­quests merely by pla­cing those med­ics in va­cant day jobs.

And many para­med­ics con­tin­ue to col­lect lots of over­time, any­way, be­cause they have to cov­er for the de­part­ment’s many un­filled med­ic po­s­i­tions, Gault said.

“We still rep­res­ent them. We’re still fight­ing for them, and this is just har­ass­ment,” he said. ••

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