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 newsworks.org 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 cbsphilly.com 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. ••