ATLANTIC CITY — Representatives for a majority of the city’s public employee unions believe the state eroded their rights under the 2016 takeover and are considering litigation.
The unions, including those that represent the city’s police, firefighters, public works, supervisors and City Hall office employees, said in an interview with The Press of Atlantic City their members are suffering due to the elimination of their civil service status. The unions said the elimination of civil service for public-sector employees under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act has directly affected the welfare of city employees, the effective operation of city government and the safety of the city’s residents and businesses.
"Our goal is to stabilize Atlantic City's finances and assure the effective provision of necessary governmental services," said Lisa Ryan, spokesperson for the Department of Community Affairs. "The (Gov. Phil) Murphy administration is committed to establishing a sustainable operating structure within the city. To achieve that, we will be guided by our statutory obligation under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, consultation with legislative leadership, and the counsel of experts we have assembled to assist us."
Requests for comments from the offices of Murphy and Mayor Frank Gilliam were not returned.
The unions, which collectively represent about 850 Atlantic City public employees, said their questions to the state have gone unanswered about why civil service was eliminated or what benefit it provides to the city. Without civil service and other public employee rights granted under the Employer-Employee Relations Act and the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission, the unions said, they have no avenue to address grievances such as degraded working conditions, increased workloads, lack of resources, arbitrary disciplinary actions and compensation and benefits that are not comparable to similar jurisdictions throughout New Jersey.
The growing frustration has prompted the unions to consider taking legal action against the state.
“It’s all right to be wrong,” said Teamsters Union Local 331 Vice President Abimael Ortiz, of the state’s decision to suspend civil service for Atlantic City public employees. “Just correct the wrong so we can move forward.”
Inside City Hall, the result has been a depleted, underpaid workforce performing more duties at the expense of resident services, said Virginia “Jenny” Darnell, head of the Atlantic City White Collar Professional Association.
“I can’t believe residents aren’t upset at the state of the city,” Darnell said. “Things are not better in the city since the state takeover. Nobody wants to paint Atlantic City in a negative light, but we don’t how much longer this can continue.”
John Varallo, president of Local Union 198 of the International Association of Firefighters, said the current process, which directs city employees to Business Administrator Jason Holt, is ineffective at best. Holt, once an Atlantic City employee, is now an employee of the Department of Community Affairs.
“It’s not a fair process,” Varallo said. “There’s no one to go to who is not connected, being paid for or getting direction from the state about what to do. How do you come to a fair resolution when the guys that are in charge of making decisions against you control the people who are supposed to hear your arguments?”
However, the biggest issue for the unions is the lack of response from the state about why civil service was eliminated in the first place.
Matt Rogers, president of PBA Local 24, said the unions are trying to cooperate with the governor’s administration and are delaying legal action while waiting for a response.
“But there’s only so much time we can give them to get answers to questions we’ve been asking for almost two years,” Rogers said. “Under the previous administration (of former Gov. Chris Christie) we knew what we were up against. Now, we’ve been made a lot of promises about it being a new day but we haven’t seen it yet.”
This story has been updated to include a response from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.