Mass. firefighters in sick leave case say rights were denied

HEADER2HAVERHILL, Mass. — Private investigators are used to conducting video surveillance on city workers only after the employee has been warned and given a chance to fix the problem on his or her own, Mayor James Fiorentini has said. But the four firefighters facing suspensions for allegedly violating the city’s sick leave rules were never counseled prior to being followed and videotaped by private investigators in December, firefighters union President Paul Weinburgh said. The firefighters have complained they have been denied their “due process rights.”
City Solicitor William Cox said information about whether any of the four firefighters were counseled by fire Chief Richard Borden prior to be being followed will be available at their disciplinary hearings on July 28. Cox said there’s a good reason why some firefighters may not have been warned about their excessive use of sick leave.
“Sometime around the end of 2007 or the beginning of 2008, the fire chief started counseling employees in the Fire Department about sick leave,” Cox said. “But the union objected. They fought the counseling the city wanted to provide and tried to provide. The union said just asking a firefighter why he was out sick or even talking to them about absenteeism violated their contract.” Cox will present the city’s case against the four firefighters at the local hearings, which are to be presided over by Lynn lawyer Michael Marks. At the conclusion, Marks will make a recommendation to the mayor. The firefighters may appeal the mayor’s final decision to the state Civil Service Commission in Boston. “We expect to lose at the mayor’s kangaroo court,” Weinburgh said. “But we expect the men will be exonerated by civil service.” The hearings are private unless either side wants to open them to the public, Cox said. Weinburgh said the four firefighters want the hearings closed because their wives and children are in the videos, he said. “They’re the one’s on trial, not their families,” Weinburgh said of the firefighters. The city typically honors an employee’s request for privacy at a disciplinary hearing, Cox said. However, he said the city could decide to open the hearings at any point right up until they begin. “If the union keeps trying to cherry-pick information that distorts the facts of the case, maybe then there becomes a compelling public interest to open the hearings,” Cox said. “But if I were one of those firefighters, I wouldn’t want the public to see the videos either. I’d be embarrassed.” The city spent $13,000 on private investigators to conduct surveillance on 10 firefighters who were out sick in December. There are about 90 firefighters on the payroll. Fiorentini said the videos show the firefighters moving furniture, climbing a ladder, and shoveling and plowing snow. One firefighter was filmed at a hockey game and another shopping, the mayor said. Fiorentini said only firefighters with a history of excessive or questionable use of sick leave were targeted in the surveillance operation. But Weinburgh, who has accused the mayor of using the sick leave probe to retaliate against the union, said one the four firefighters had perfect attendance in 2007 and only missed a few days of work last year. “That guy has 1,300 or 1,400 hours of sick time and hasn’t called in sick in years,” Weinburgh said. “Another guy hasn’t called in sick since December.” Weinburgh has declined to identify the firefighters facing suspensions by name, but he said they include two past presidents of the union, one past vice president and a firefighter who recently insulted the mayor over his threat to close the Bradford fire station to save money. The city also has refused to identify the firefighters, but Cox said the names of the men and the city’s video evidence will be publicly available when the hearings are over and Fiorentini makes his final ruling on disciplining the firefighters. Weinburgh said he spoke to each of the firefighters facing suspensions yesterday. Each one said they were never told by the fire chief or anyone else that their use of sick leave was excessive or suspicious, Weinburgh said. The firefighters have been told they are to be suspended for five days in September.

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