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Firefighters facing sick-time discipline

Haverhill mayor hired investigator

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / July 15, 2009
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Four Haverhill firefighters face suspension after a private investigator hired by the mayor videotaped them carrying furniture, shoveling snow, attending a hockey game, and doing other activities on sick days that suggested they were fit for duty, Mayor James J. Fiorentini said.

The mayor said he elected to spend about $13,000 on the investigation after a multiyear effort by the city to curb overuse of sick time failed to improve attendance in the Fire Department, even as employees in other departments cut sick leave by about 1,000 days from 2005 to 2008.

Firefighters last year called in sick an average of 12 days each, more than three times as often as Haverhill’s police officers. About 20 percent of the roughly $8 million annual fire budget goes to overtime, to staff shifts for firefighters out sick or on vacation, Fiorentini said.

“We want to send a very clear message to everybody that we’re very serious about monitoring and controlling sick time,’’ Fiorentini said. “We consider ourselves here the guardians of the public dollars, and we’re going to take all reasonable steps, and we consider this a reasonable step.’’

The investigation was first reported by The Eagle-Tribune.

Other cities, including Boston, have sought to crack down on firefighters earning overtime to fill in for colleagues who are out sick. In Haverhill’s case, the four firefighters, who were videotaped in December, will receive individual hearings with an outside hearing officer and face potential five-day suspensions, said Fiorentini.

The firefighters union defended the men and accused the mayor of a ploy to embarrass the individual firefighters, who were notified of their pending suspensions in letters hand-delivered by city police officers. A union official said the mayor is trying to squeeze the firefighters into making concessions in a protracted dispute over sick leave, overtime, and other matters.

“This goes deeper than sick leave,’’ said Todd Guertin, secretary of Haverhill Firefighters Local 1011, calling the mayor’s hiring of a private investigator “a complete abuse of power and a misuse of funds.’’

Massachusetts cities have periodically spent tax dollars on private investigators. Boston used an investigator last year to track public works employees.

Fiorentini, who said he has used private investigators in personnel matters before, said the practice is becoming more common for municipalities. As a lawyer who handled worker’s compensation cases before running for office, Fiorentini used to counsel private-sector clients that they should always expect that they were being tracked by employers, he said.

City Council President Michael J. Hart said the council was unaware of the investigation, though many councilors have been concerned about overuse or abuse of sick time.

“I have no problem with the mayor taking some steps to try to bring about some reform in that area,’’ Hart said, adding that he thinks a small number of workers are causing the problem.

But Councilor David E. Hall, a retired police sergeant who serves as chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said he was unpleasantly surprised by the expenditure.

“The bottom line is, in all the years that I’ve been involved in law enforcement, I have never seen an investigation into something like this,’’ Hall said. “The city’s broke. We just went out and spent $13,000 for an investigation by a private investigator, and I think this could have been handled much more professionally by doing it internally.’’

Fiorentini has clashed with the Firefighters Union in trying to eliminate what he considers arcane and costly practices and what the union counters are hard-won clauses that protect public and employee safety. Among other things, the mayor has sought to fill shifts using part-timers instead of full-timers on overtime rates and to require firefighters on sick leave to be evaluated by a city doctor when missing two consecutive 24-hour shifts. (The firefighters work a 24-hour shift followed by 48 hours off, then a 24-hour shift followed by 96 hours off.)

Firefighters contend that the city could save overtime costs by hiring more firefighters to plug open shifts, a debate that continues as the city contemplates closing one of four fire stations. The situation is reminiscent of one in Boston, where a dispute between the mayor and union over sick time and other issues has led the city to impose temporary “brown outs’’ of fire companies.

Guertin said the union has filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board claiming the city committed an unfair labor practice. The activities caught on camera do not mean the men were fit for firefighting, he said. “The so-called evidence that the city has shown us doesn’t show any sick leave abuse,’’ he said. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job. We’re strapping on 65 to 70 pounds of equipment. We’re climbing ladders. We’re in a building that’s 700, 800 degrees. Sometimes when we’re sick or we have a twisted ankle, it’s not like going to work and sitting at a desk where you can fight your way through it.’’