NJ firefighters claim state hired private investigator to track them
Union president John Varallo said firefighters who were out on leave noticed a particular vehicle being parked in front of their houses
By Amy S. Rosenberg
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The union representing Atlantic City firefighters says a Gov. Christie-appointed state overseer has hired a private investigator to track firefighters who are out on leave at their homes.
The allegation was contained in a filing that asked Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez to block "drastic" pay cuts the state sought to impose Dec. 22.
"Some guys that were on leave started noticing a particular vehicle out front of their house," said John Varallo, president of Local 198 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which has been fighting cuts and layoffs sought by state-appointed overseers. "No warning, no heads up. One called the police one time because it was literally parked all day."
The police checked the licence plate, which revealed to the union the existence of a private investigator hired by the state to track firefighters out on medical leave. The state assumed power over Atlantic City government under a takeover signed into law a year ago.
On Monday, Mendez issued a temporary injunction against the 11.3 percent cuts, which the union says would lower rookie firefighter wages to $14.63 an hour, and set a hearing for Jan. 10. The union says the pay cuts would result in Atlantic City firefighters earning less than those in comparable cities and than other public workers in the city, including clerks and carpenters.
Former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, a $400-an-hour lawyer appointed by Christie to run Atlantic City, said through a spokeswoman that the state was forced to seek the pay cuts after the same judge blocked it from imposing layoffs that Mendez said would have resulted in an unsafe level of coverage for the city.
"The fire union's posture has been one of confrontation from day one," spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said in an e-mail. "The fact is, the city cannot afford the $3.8 million in additional costs that resulted from Judge Mendez's decision requiring 180 firefighters even though the state and city believe 148 firefighters is sufficient to maintain public safety."
Ryan did not respond to a subsequent question about the state's hiring a private investigator to track firefighters on medical or other types of leave. Chiesa and his law firm have billed about $3 million for their services running Atlantic City, much of that spent on litigation involving the city's police and firefighters.
The takeover law gives the state power to rip up union contracts and impose new terms. Mendez allowed other unilateral changes sought by the state, including prior pay cuts and a change in the schedule to a 56-hour work week, to go forward. But that change, the union says, triggered regular overtime, which it says the state is trying to head off by sending firefighters home on short notice. Firefighters previously worked two 10-hour day shifts, followed by two 14-hour night shifts, followed by four days off.
The state is also requiring the only on-duty battalion chief to leave the city to meet with employees on leave to confirm they are at home and not abusing the sick-time policy. Varallo says this presents a safety issue as the battalion chief is taken out of the city to travel to the homes of firefighters, some of whom live miles from Atlantic City. In the past, with a bigger department, administrative officers had been used to do sick-checks, Varallo said, but never one assigned to the field.
Varallo said he had been unable to get the state to say what criteria officials are using to determine which firefighters they monitor.
"We know they're making dangerous decisions," he said. "We have to fight them."
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