ATLANTIC CITY — The union representing the city’s firefighters has filed a complaint against the city and state over unfair promoting practices, compensation and unpaid raises.
International Association of Fire Fighters Local 198 filed the complaint Monday in state Superior Court alleging the city and the state Department of Community Affairs and Division of Local Government Services have failed to “act in good faith” when promoting firefighters to captains and failed to pay contractually mandated step raises.
The DCA said it is disappointed in the union’s decision to litigate rather than continue discussions it says have been taking place in good faith and on a regular basis.
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“Since the passage of the MSRA, the state has been consistent across administrations with regard to hiring and promotional processes and finds the union’s comments in the complaint and in the press disingenuous,” a spokesperson for the DCA said.
The DCA was put in charge of overseeing day-to-day city operations under the 2016 Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act.
The union has been in and out of court with the DCA the past three years over state-mandated changes to the department, including staff cuts, salary and benefits reductions and switching from a 42-hour work schedule to a 56-hour schedule.
John Varallo, president of the union, said the new lawsuit stems from inconsistent labor practices the Fire Department has had to deal with since the state takeover went into effect in 2016.
“These are problems that should have been taken care of in the first couple of months,” Varallo said. “Here we are two years later, still wasting taxpayer money and still wasting everybody’s time trying to figure out stuff that should have already been done.”
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According to the complaint, the state allowed the Civil Service Promotional List to expire Jan. 6 and did not implement a traditional method afterward for assigning captain promotions.
Instead of using the promotion list, the state announced in late January it would hold interviews with all firefighters for captain promotions.
The interviews, which started in February, used unknown procedures and criteria, including having a firefighter from another city sit on the interview panel, according to the complaint.
“We’ve never discussed who goes on the panel, we don’t know how it’s graded, we don’t know the scoring system, we don’t know what questions they ask,” Varallo said. “We don’t know, is there an appeal process if they skip over somebody?”
Varallo said this kind of framework is important to ensure fair hiring.
“We can’t have somebody get skipped over because of the color of their skin, we can’t have somebody get skipped over because they’re a veteran, we can’t have somebody get skipped over who’s a woman,” Varallo said. “I need to have a mechanism in place so I can fight for her and get her position if she was wronged.”
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The state contends this complaint is an example of the union’s “disingenuous” comments.
“Though Local 198 repeatedly pressed the city and state to advance promotions to fill permanent captain positions, it promptly complained that the city and state chose to interview all eligible candidates, rather than the limited list of the union’s preferred candidates,” the DCA spokesperson said.
Forty or 50 firefighters will be interviewed and some are being asked to sign confidentiality agreements or “gag orders” for the interview, according to the complaint.
The DCA said the confidentiality agreements were implemented to address a concern Varallo raised that the last candidates interviewed would have more time to prepare than candidates interviewed first because interview questions could potentially be spread through the ranks.
The union is asking that the court grant an injunction to stop the promotions and the interview process until all parties negotiate the procedures, standards, requirements and selection process used.
The complaint also alleges eight firefighters have had to take on the role of acting captains the past three years without receiving the benefits tied to that higher title.
The department has not permanently promoted any firefighters to the rank of captain in more than five years, court filings show.
The union also says the city and state did not pay contractually mandated step raises and a one-time $1,000 salary increase in 2016.
The 25 firefighters the union says are eligible for raises were hired in November 2011, January 2013 and May 2013 and have missed raises for 2016, 2017 and 2018.
“The state came in and implemented a whole new salary guide, and they haven’t even paid the step raises on their new salary guide,” Varallo said.
The state argues all the matters the union raises in its complaint were being addressed in ongoing discussions among the city, the state and the union.
“Despite being unable to reach consensus on some key issues, which has caused the union to complain about the length of negotiations, the city and state remained committed to good-faith negotiations with Local 198,” the spokesperson said.