Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Firefighters’

Why the Best Protectors for Workers Are Other Workers

Friday, October 13th, 2017

As concertgoers fled the mass shooting at the country music festival outside the Mandalay Bay in Clark County, Nev., at the end of the Las Vegas strip, dozens of off-duty fire fighters attending the concert sprang into action. Twelve were among the wounded by gunfire.

At the same time, more than 150 fire fighters and paramedics from Clark County Local 1908 and surrounding locals rushed to the scene to save lives, treat the wounded and help the survivors.

“Our members–including those attending the concert off duty–reacted as they always do,” said IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger. “They put their training to work immediately, without hesitation and without regard for their own safety, making quick and difficult decisions on how best to save lives.”

As the news of the unfolding tragedy flashed across the nation, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) – the union representing more than 310,000 professional fire fighters and paramedics–also took action, reaching out to Clark County Local 1908 and other affiliates in the area to provide assistance.

On Monday morning after the shooting, Patrick Morrison–a retired Virginia fire fighter who heads the health and safety division at the IAFF, was on the phone with affiliates across the country to organize and mobilize experienced teams of peer support counselors and trauma specialists to help members involved in the response to the mass shooting. Within hours, he too was on a plane to Las Vegas.

“It’s easy to see a broken arm and treat it. It’s more difficult to see trauma to our brains or hearts,” Morrison said. “Everyday, work for fire fighters and paramedics can be traumatic. Mass-casualty events can be much worse. We want to make sure our members understand the signs and symptoms of traumatic stress injuries, so we can treat them.”

Many of the peer support counselors who arrived in Las Vegas have been through similar events. Some pulled bodies from the attack at the 2016 Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla., where 49 people were killed and 59 wounded. Others got a crash course in trauma from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, or from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

All of them brought their personal stories to Las Vegas to help their union brothers and sisters.

At the school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Col., Ray Rahne was a fire fighter who had responded like everyone else in his department. Afterwards, the Vietnam veteran, who is also a husband and father, would find himself crying at times. And he was skittish and jumpy.

“I would go from happy to depressed at the snap of the fingers. People started asking, ‘What’s going on?’ This went on for over a year. Finally, I thought, I don’t know. I’ve got to go see somebody,” Rahne said.

Now retired from Littleton Fire and Rescue and a IAFF district vice president, Rahne got help and then joined his union’s growing movement to treat mental and emotional injuries to fire fighters, paramedics, and dispatchers.

Two years ago, the IAFF hired its first full-time and permanent behavior health specialist. This year, the union plans to hire a second. And, last March, the union opened the Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery in Upper Marlboro, Md., exclusively for IAFF members.

“Health and safety is a big priority for us. We want to make sure all of our members are as safe as possible,” Morrison said.

EEOC lawsuits allege sex discrimination in physical ability tests

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

Three different cases. Three different theories of gender discrimination. But one common thread – an old school presumption that certain blue-collar jobs are a “man’s work.”

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) has filed suit against three U.S. employers for sex discrimination in hiring. The lawsuits allege overt bias against female job candidates in the form of bogus physical tests, physical appearance, and a blatant “no girls allowed” hiring policy.

EEOC takes a strong stand against gender bias

Perhaps it was simply a coincidence of timing. But the EEOC is sending a message in three unconnected cases that gender discrimination will not be tolerated in 21st century America. When the EEOC was unable to resolve each of the cases through pre-litigation channels, it filed suit against a railroad (CSX Transportation), a shipping company (R&L Carriers) and a parking management service.

  • At CSX, female applicants failed physical requirement tests at a substantially higher rate than male candidates. Rather than indicating women are physically unfit for the industry, the EEOC contends that the tests favor men through arbitrary benchmarks.

Apparent rationale: They all take the same test. Not our fault if the ladies can’t cut it.

  • In the Eagle Parking case, a woman was turned down on the presumption – based on nothing more than her appearance – that she could not handle the “physicality” of the job. She was urged to apply for a desk job instead.

Apparent rationale: In the manager’s professional opinion, based on years of parking cars, a woman could not perform such a back-breaking feat.

  • In the R&L Carriers case, the EEOC alleges straight-up discrimination; no women are hired as dockworker and loaders, even when they are qualified candidates.

Apparent rationale: Some jobs are for dudes, and you’re not a dude.

Physical requirements can be an unfair barrier to women

The EEOC litigation will prompt a close look at physical ability requirements in candidate screening and hiring, particularly in traditionally male occupations. Courts have generally upheld the right of employers to use physical ability as a hiring criteria, with a few caveats: (a) physical tests must reflect the actual job duties, and (b) minimum requirements cannot be set arbitrarily high to exclude women.

For instance, only 7 percent of U.S. firefighters are female, chiefly because so few can pass the rigorous obstacle course exams. Through equal opportunity lawsuits, the physical ability standards have been scaled back in many jurisdictions to give female applicants a fighting chance to win the job and prove themselves. Detractors say the revised standards are watered down and compromise safety. Proponents say the standards were based on male demographics and were unnecessarily tough — no firefighter performs all those feats in an actual fire call.

Is the job really that rigorous?

Most blue-collar jobs do not require “American Ninja” strength and agility. Basic physical fitness is typically sufficient, and those who truly can’t do the work will soon quit or be let go. Too often, the barrier to employment is not women’s muscles but men’s outdated attitudes.

This blog was originally published at passmanandkaplan.com on August 8, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

Labor and Community Allies Fight for Jobs and Public Safety in Atlantic City

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

Atlantic City, New Jersey, may be the gambling capital of the East Coast, but there are certain things that shouldn’t be left up to chance, namely public safety. However, bureaucrats in charge of the state takeover of Atlantic City are now ready to impose drastic budget cuts that will result in 50% fewer firefighters and the smallest police force since 1971.

The New Jersey State AFL-CIO has joined with various labor and community allies to oppose these cuts that threaten safety and also undermine the economic recovery of Atlantic City. This community-based coalition has launched a campaign called “Don’t Gamble on Safety AC” that seeks to raise awareness of the impact of budget cuts.

During the campaign launch last week, one of the most salient voices was that of Officer Joshlee Vadell, who was shot in the head while heroically intervening in an armed robbery last year. Under the plan proposed by the state of New Jersey, disability payments for officers like Vadell could be cut, and the officers who rushed to save his life would face layoffs.

Watch Officer Vadell’s press conference speech, and be sure to check out highlights from the event.

Without ensuring safety, residents, businesses, visitors and workers are all put at risk. The New Jersey State AFL-CIO will stand with our brothers and sisters and the Atlantic City community to ensure that this fundamental community need is met.

The campaign will include billboards, direct mail, online advertising and multiple grassroots activities, including leafleting on the boardwalk and door-to-door canvassing to inform residents. For more information on the campaign, visit DontGambleOnSafetyAC.com.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on March 28, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.

Detroit firefighters and police face pension cuts with no safety net. Not even Social Security.

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

Laura ClawsonLosing a pension you’ve worked years to earn is a nightmare scenario, one that can change a comfortable, secure retirement into one filled with worries and penny-pinching as Social Security goes from being part of your retirement income to all of it. For public workers in many places, including firefighters and police in Detroit, it’s a doomsday scenario, because they don’t get Social Security at all.

About 30 percent of public employees nationwide aren’t covered by Social Security; government workers weren’t covered by the program at its inception and while many have been moved under its umbrella over the years, some cities, towns, and states continue to run pension plans that don’t include Social Security. Detroit’s firefighters and police are in that group:

Of the nearly 21,000 city retirees now collecting pensions, 9,017 retired police officers, firefighters or their surviving spouses don’t get Social Security, or about 44 percent of all city pensioners.

For those who have worked in other jobs for long enough to qualify for Social Security, those benefits are reduced by a percentage of their Detroit pension. That’s not a lavish pension, by the way: The average annual police pension in Detroit is $30,000, compared with $58,000 in Los Angeles, $47,000 in Dallas, and $42,000 in Kansas City. And public workers’ pensions, unlike the pensions of many private sector workers, aren’t insured by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, meaning if they lose their Detroit pensions, that’s it, there’s no safety net to catch them.

What we’re talking about here are workers who spent decades earning less than they might have elsewhere in exchange for the promise of a secure—though not lavish—retirement. And now they face the very real threat of being left with a small fraction of what they earned and need to live on. They kept their promises to the city of Detroit. It must keep its promises to them.

This article originally posted on Daily Kos Labor on August 12, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:  Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos

NASA Firefighters Protest Steep Cuts

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

mike elkThis week, photos of NASA engineers joyously celebrating their successful Mars rover mission went viral on the Internet. However, for another set of NASA workers–the firefighters at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida–there has been little joy in the face of imminent slashes to their retirement benefits by NASA contractor G4S.

Last year, G4S, the third largest employer in the world (and the troubled provider of security for the London Olympics), took over the contract to provide firefighting services at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. G4S continued to employ the 90 firefighters who worked there but demanded contract concessions. For the last year the firefighters have been working under the terms of their previous contract, as negotiated by their union, Transport Workers Union Local 525. But now that the year is coming to an end, G4S is pushing for steep cuts.

Upon taking over the contracts last November, G4S immediately froze the firefighters’ pensions and converted them from a defined pension plan to a 401(k). Now, in negotiations with workers, G4S wants to double workers’ out-of-pocket medical expenses. The company also proposes an 80 percent reduction in its contributions to the firefighters’ retirement plan, forcing workers to pay more out of their own paychecks. The company’s new retirement scheme would cut workers’ retirement income by a minimum of 30 percent, and possibly more for workers who have been there fewer years. Retirement is an important issue for firefighters, who typically retire in their early 50s because of their physically demanding jobs.

“Firemen are walking off [the job] because they are disgusted by [the benefit cuts]. They are finding jobs in other places. Firemen go to work where they know there is a decent wage and they can retire,” says TWU Local 525 President Kevin Smith. “Now the company is giving them such a terrible package that there is no way they can retire like normal firefighters across the country.”

G4S refused to respond to interview requests, saying it could not comment on ongoing negotiations “other than to say that we continue to negotiate with the Transport Workers Union to work towards a successful resolution.“

However, according to TWU Local 525, G4S has said at the bargaining table that the cuts are necessary in order for them to make a profit on the contract, since they can’t get additional money from NASA.“In a lot of contracts, you have a vehicle to get equitable adjustments to meet contract costs. This is a fixed price contract and there is no way to get an adjustment,” explains TWU Local 525 President Kevin Smith.

However, NASA has refused to get involved in the negotiations, saying that legally they cannot do so as a neutral third party.

“I am upset with NASA,” says Smith. “They accepted the bid, so they are responsible for it, but they have no way to fix it. They have a fault with no remedy.”

For now, workers are stepping up their militancy in an attempt to engage NASA. The union firefighters are picketing Kennedy Space Center twice a day, five days a week, demanding simply to maintain the contract they currently have.

“If we don’t stand up to them and fight them, all the other shops are coming through behind us on negotiations,“ says David McGaha, a paramedic and firefighter. “Before you know we are going to be working for minimum wage with no benefits.”

Despite the ongoing picketing, Smith remains pessimistic that the union by itself can successfully pressure NASA to clean up the mess.

“I am certainly not a big enough person to put pressure on NASA,” says Smith. “I have been picketing them for three years and I’m getting nowhere. It’s going to take a Senator or President Obama to step up.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 8, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

Should a firefighter or police officer be paid more than minimum wage?

Friday, July 13th, 2012

Mark E. AndersonI do not live in Scranton, Pennsylvania, nor do I know the political leanings of the mayor or the city council; however, I do know that their actions, cutting the wages of city employees to minimum wage, are shameful. By the way, that wage cut applies to firefighters and police officers as well as a myriad of other city employees.

The employee’s unions are fighting back and are taking the city to court:

The trio of unions – International Association of Firefighters Local 60, the Fraternal Order of Police E.B. Jermyn Lodge 2 and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge 2305 – expect to soon file several new legal actions, said their attorney, Thomas Jennings. Those actions would include:

  • A motion in Lackawanna County Court to hold the mayor in contempt, due to paying 398 city employees minimum wages in their paychecks Friday, even though a judge on Thursday and Friday ordered full wages.
  • A lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Scranton under the Fair Labor Standards Act alleging the city has failed to pay wages on time and failed to pay overtime.
  • Another federal complaint alleging violations of the Heart and Lung Act, because benefits of disabled police and firefighters also were cut to minimum wages without first having a required hearing.
  • A penalty petition with the state workers’ compensation commission over the minimum wages.

“Pick a law. They violated it,” Mr. Jennings said.

The city is claiming that it had no choice as it only has $133,000 in cash on hand as of Monday but owed $3.4 million dollars to vendors, not including employees:

A payroll every two weeks amounts to $1 million, officials said. To free up cash to pay overdue bills, particularly health coverage, the mayor on June 27 announced he was indefinitely cutting salaries of all non-federally funded employees to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. This way, the payroll every two weeks would amount to $300,000, though [the mayor] pledged to pay all back wages once the crisis is resolved.

Sure, he will pay the workers back once the crisis is resolved, and I bet while he is at it he will toss in some oceanfront property in Arizona and a bridge in Brooklyn.

Now, of course if you go through the comments sections on any news story about the goings on in Scranton you will find that they are, unfortunately, quite typical these days. Those fatcat public employees and their unions are all to blame for Scranton’s and the nation’s woes. Yep, that cop who at 3:00 am is chasing down a guy who just robbed someone’s house is the problem. The firefighter who pulled a sleeping child out of a burning home is the problem. That guy over there who tests the tap water to make sure it is clean and safe to drink; it is his fault that Scranton and the nation as a whole is broke.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on July 11, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Anderson, a Daily Kos Labor contributor, describes himself as a 44 year-old veteran, lifelong Progressive Democrat, Rabid Packer fan, Single Dad, Part-time Grad Student, and Full-time IS worker. You can learn more about him on his Facebook, “Kodiak54 (Mark Andersen)”

Wrestling With Racial Bias, New York Firefighters Resist Reform

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Michelle ChenNew York City’s firefighters have been embroiled in racial and ethnic politics throughout their history, and the Fire Department’s latest civil rights controversy has stoked a political standoff and a hiring freeze.

The FDNY is still reeling from a federal court ruling in August that put firefighters at odds with anti-discrimination law. The judge ruled that the Department’s recent hiring exam was systematically discriminated against Black and Latino candidates.

But to accommodate the need to hire new personnel, the court offered the city the option of initiating an interim hiring process, as long as the procedures were not discriminatory. The city has so far refused. So now, a long line of frustrated aspiring firefighters remain in limbo, denied a fair shake at obtaining a coveted spot in the ranks of New York’s Bravest.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and lawyers representing the Vulcan Society, an association of Black firefighters, accused the FDNY of obstruction:

We had searched for the least disruptive, least discriminatory, and most fair ways to hire this class. Judge Garaufis, rather than forcing any one method on the City, opted to give it the choice to select the method it preferred.  Instead, the City continues to obstruct any efforts at collective resolution and drag its feet when it comes to diversifying the firefighter workforce.

This suit is in some ways the inverse of the famous Ricci v. DeStefano case, in which a group of mostly white firefighters in New Haven sued over the city’s rejection of exam results that might have invited charges of racial discrimination. In New York City, advocates for Black firefighters charged that the city’s exam process effectively imposed racial barriers.

The controversy is especially heated not just because of firefighters’ status as urban folk heroes, but because the bias at play here isn’t blatant racism but a more subtle intransigence that’s embedded in the institution’s cultural mindset.

While the FDNY’s defenders posture themselves as victims of political correctness, the crux of Judge Garaufis’s ruling was fundamentally not about constructing a race-conscious hiring process, but rejecting tests that simply don’t do their job:

The City has not shown that the current examination identifies candidates who will be successful firefighters. Because the test questions do not measure the abilities required for the job of entry-level firefighter, the examination cannot distinguish between qualified and unqualified candidates, or even between more and less qualified candidates…. What the examination does do is screen and rank applicants in a manner that disproportionately excludes black and Hispanic applicants. As a result, hundreds of minority applicants are being denied the opportunity to serve as New York firefighters, for no legitimate or justifiable reason.

The FDNY’s problem is that it can’t really justify why its squad bears so little demographic resemblance to the city it serves. While Blacks and Latinos make up only 4 and 7 percent of the city’s firefighters respectively, the plaintiff’s lawyers point out, “More than half of Los Angeles and Philadelphia’s firefighters, and 40 percent of Boston’s are people of color.”

The only reasonable explanation appears to be a latent tolerance, if not active defense, of an entrenched white majority. Below the surface lies a complex fraternal subculture rooted in the sinewy traditions of Old New York, when fire companies operated more like ethnic gangs than a government agency.

Today, the FDNY may function more or less as part of the city’s vast bureaucracy, but its resistance to court-ordered reform betrays an arrogance grandfathered from an earlier time.  With their refusal to institute an interim hiring process, they’ve apparently decided that for now, they’d rather put up a good fight, than work with the community to figure out a way to sustain its ranks without violating civil rights. Old habits are hard to extinguish.

This article was originally posted on Working In These Times.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Racewire.org. She can be reached at michellechen@inthesetimes.com

To Hell With Pensions: Let Them Eat Dog Food

Monday, June 29th, 2009

The other day, I saw an amazing spectacle: a firefighter responded to a call to a burning building in New York City and, as he was dragging the fire hose to the fire, a crowd of angry people stopped him and said, “Stop. Your pension is too generous so don’t you dare put that fire out”. Absurd, you say? Well, yes–if you mean the intensifying attacks against the pensions people earn.

Yesterday, there was an attack against firefighters’ pensions in the pages of the Daily News:

Even in the midst of a deep economic downturn, New York City taxpayers are paying billions every year to provide city workers with retirement benefits that are extraordinarily generous by any standard.

Since fiscal year 2003, the taxpayer contribution to municipal workers’ pensions has more than tripled – to $6.4 billion in fiscal year 2009. At this rate, in four years, every working-age New Yorker will be putting an average of $1,250 a year into the pension funds of municipal workers.

We cannot keep giving new workers retirement benefits at the current levels.

Take current city firefighters, for example. They are entitled to retire after 20 years of service at half pay, with their overtime included in that calculation. In 2006, the last year for which data are available, the pension benefit for a newly retired firefighter averaged just under $73,000 annually. On top of that, many get another $12,000 every December as a “Christmas bonus” to bring the annual cash total to $85,000 – all of which is exempt from state and local income taxes.

That attack came from someone from the “Citizens Budget Commission”, a self-perpetuating organization which has zero grassroots links and is simply a front run primarily by corporate leaders in New York.

Today, The New York Times carries another attack:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is sounding the alarm over New York City’s pension system these days, calling it “out of control.”

Costs have ballooned, he says, threatening to bankrupt the city. Municipal unions and lawmakers in Albany created the crisis, he suggests, and left the city holding the bag.

But interviews and budget records show that the Bloomberg administration itself is responsible for much of the growth in city pension costs over the last eight years, and has repeatedly missed opportunities to rein in the spending.

Since Mr. Bloomberg took office, city contributions to the pension system have jumped nearly five-fold to $6.3 billion, from $1.4 billion, and they now account for one out of every 10 dollars in the city’s budget.

A major reason: the mayor has given the city’s 300,000 workers generous pay increases, guaranteeing that they retire with bigger pensions, which are typically 50 percent of salary. Such raises force the city to make heftier payments to the pension system now.

So, let’s talk about the real world. The average pension for a transit worker in New York is about $20,000-a year–after a job that very few of the people who attack transit workers’ “generous benefits” would ever take. Other city workers’ pensions are in the low 30s. And firefighters’ pensions average around $70,000.

If you think for a moment about what the cost of living is in New York, that isn’t a lot of money even at the “high” end.

So, what is going on here? In the public sector, the hue and cry over “generous pensions” obscures a major point: the reason city and state governments are facing budget deficits is not because of “generous” pensions. Putting aside the most recent budget shortfalls made worse by the economic crisis, the real problem is that in New York–and in virtually every other state in the country–we’ve allowed the richest people in society to escape paying their fair share.

Last December, I pointed out that New York would easily have billions more in revenue to use for basic services if the wealthiest people in the state paid a fairer share of the dues that should be required in a decent society. It is ironic, indeed, that the very people who escape paying higher taxes are some of the very people who were at the helm–incompetently, one might add–of the financial industry which, with its spectacular collapse, wiped trillions of dollars in wealth held by regular people who believed, in the absence of a real pension, that their 401(k)s would provide a decent retirement.

Indeed, the hammering of pensions in the private sector–where a decent pension is increasingly a thing of the past–is directly related to the ideological assault in the private sector. The “free marketeers” are clever–they can whip up the public’s anger about “generous” public employee benefits by effectively saying to people whose pensions in the private sector are evaporating, “look over there, people, at those overly generous benefits YOU are paying for”. It is the classic Henry Ford strategy about dividing one half of the working class against the other half. And it makes people blind and distracted–and prone to forgetting about the transit worker who gets them to work, the firefighter down the street who their kids look up to and the rest of the army of people who make life run in our society.

As progressives, though, we have to fight this ugly strategy. The answer should not be: someone doesn’t deserve a decent pension because I don’t have one. It should be: everyone deserves a decent pension and, if the very wealthy would stop for a moment from avoiding their responsibility in the public sector (by paying a fair share in dues) and stop the wide-scale looting of the wealth created in the private sector (by ending the enrichment of a handful of CEOs and top executives who reap millions of dollars in pensions benefits while the rest of the workforce gets crumbs), everyone could retire with dignity and respect.

Now, where are our political leaders with that message?

I am curious to hear about stories about the attacks against pensions in other places.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

This article originally appeared in Working Life on June 23, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

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