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Calif. firefighters file lawsuit over retaliation after complaints about mandatory overtime

Manhattan Beach firefighters sue city officials for failing to fill vacant positions and requiring overtime shifts


A Manhattan Beach fire engine.

Manhattan Beach Fire Department/Facebook

By Joe Nelson

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — A dozen Manhattan Beach firefighters are suing the city in federal court, alleging top officials retaliated against them for publicly railing against short staffing that required them to work “crushing” amounts of overtime, especially during the COVID pandemic.

Once considered a “crown jewel” of Manhattan Beach, the city’s Fire Department began to suffer in 2018, when Bruce Moe, a defendant in the lawsuit, took over as city manager and refused to fill nine vacant department positions to save on future pension and benefits costs, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday, May 21, in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

From March 2018 to June 2022, the suit alleges, that Moe and city human resources directors refused to fill the vacancies in a lean department that had only 29 positions, not including the fire chief. During that time, and even through the end of 2023, the remaining firefighters worked dramatically more overtime.

The overtime demand was especially pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic, which jeopardized the safety of both the firefighters and the public, according to the lawsuit.

“Moe’s ill-conceived vision of ‘budget efficiency’ is the epitome of the penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking of a person who has never had to work 24 hours straight, without sleep, as a first responder to emergency calls,” the lawsuit states. “Moe’s approach, which resulted in brutal and excessive mandatory overtime for 20 firefighters who had to do the work of 30 firefighters, took a severe physical and psychological toll on plaintiffs.”

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Also named as a defendant in the lawsuit is Manhattan Beach Human Resources Director Lisa Jenkins, who the plaintiffs allege worked in tandem with Moe to, among other things, block promotions of firefighters who spoke out publicly against the city and launch baseless, retaliatory disciplinary investigations against union leadership, the lawsuit alleges.

City spokesperson Alexandria Latragna said in a statement Friday, May 24, that the city has not been served with the lawsuit, nor has it had an opportunity to read or analyze the details of the complaint, and therefore could not comment on the allegations.

“The city remains committed to supporting all of our city employees — including our firefighter personnel — and their labor organizations,” Latragna said.

Moe retiring

The lawsuit comes roughly a month after Moe announced he was retiring after 35 years with the city. He previously served as the city’s finance director for 20 years and began his career with the South Bay community of 34,000-plus residents in 1989 as a general services supervisor for purchasing and warehouse operations.

Latragna said Moe’s retirement was in no way connected to the lawsuit or the union’s conflict with the city.

The MBFA, according to the lawsuit, repeatedly asked the city to fill what it described in its lawsuit as a “growing list of vacant positions,” to no avail.

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“With each additional retirement and injury on the job, the vacancies increased, and the remaining firefighters (had) to work more overtime and shoulder more responsibilities,” according to the lawsuit. “Morale in the department deteriorated as a dwindling number of firefighters had to work a crushing number of overtime hours to protect the health and welfare of Manhattan Beach residents.”

Moe, the lawsuit alleges, lashed out at the firefighters for speaking out on the issue, calling them “overpaid” and “entitled.”

“He supported that falsity with annual pay figures that were inflated due to the excessive, unsustainable, mandatory overtime hours the city itself had created by dangerously understaffing the department,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also alleges the city refused to negotiate in good faith with the association over an expiring labor agreement, and, in the fall of 2022, voted to impose unfair labor terms upon firefighters without their consent.

Pete Heck, the MBFA’s current president, declined to comment on Friday, deferring comment to the union’s attorney, Thomas Brown.

Same issues persist

In a telephone interview, Brown said firefighters are still working mandatory overtime in the city due to the firefighter shortage.

“It’s still going on,” he said. “It’s a shame they have to put up with some of the municipal nonsense that goes on, especially when they risk their lives for the residents. It causes me to shake my head.”

He said the union has tried to work with the city for several years to resolve their issues, but things recently came to a head, prompting the litigation.

“There were a few last straws that I’m not going to go into right now, but they said, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Brown said.

Three-year contract

Nearly a year ago, things between the city and MBFA seemed to be amicable. In June 2023, the City Council approved a three-year labor contract with the union that called for an incremental 10% cost-of-living salary increase.

The agreement also included overtime pay at 1.4 times the hourly rate for working special events, 2.5% collateral duty pay for special certifications, such as for hazardous materials coordinator and fire investigator, and an increase of up to $100 per month in technical specialty pay.

Additionally, the agreement called for an increase in paid holiday hours from 100 to 139, a sick leave cash-out, and allowing five employees per shift being to be on vacation at the same time as opposed to only one employee per shift, the previous requirement.

Rudy Mejia, then the union president and now one of the 12 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told the Daily Breeze at the time that the agreement “creates that stability for our firefighters and gives us labor peace.” He said things were different between the union and the city.

“What’s different now is we put the past behind us as best we could, communicating and building relationships with the city manager,” Mejia said at the time.

Mejia could not be reached for comment on Friday.

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