The city recently settled a lawsuit that career firefighters had filed over several layoffs and the recent restructuring of the Fire Department that included the hiring of civilian paramedics — positions that the union claimed were created illegally. Both sides expressed optimism that the agreement would lead to renewed contract negotiations.
The Long Beach Fire Department, which also has about 150 volunteer firefighters, is one of two paid fire departments on Long Island, and Long Beach Professional Firefighters Local 287, the union representing the city’s career unit, has been without a contract for seven years.
The recent restructuring, members said, created a sense of anxiety among career firefighters that their jobs were not secure, or that the paid unit would be abolished — especially after Garden City significantly cut the number of professional firefighters in its department and the Village of Port Chester, in Westchester County, eliminated them altogether.
Now, after two years of litigation over various aspects of the restructuring, Local 287 agreed to withdraw the majority of its lawsuit against the city last month, as part of an agreement that provides job security for the current roster of 18 firefighters and includes minimum staffing of four career firefighters on an engine, as well as some overtime controls.
“We’re hoping that this will provide momentum toward contract negotiations,” said Rob Agostisi, the city’s corporation counsel. “I think, from the city’s standpoint, there is a vast acceptance of the majority of the restructuring, and from the union’s perspective, I believe that their concerns regarding job security have been largely assuaged.”
“That anxiety is greatly lessened — but it’s never going to be totally gone away,” added Local 287 President Billy Piazza. “It’s a four-man minimum for the next five years — there is no requirement now at all, so they could’ve knocked us down to three — so [the settlement] removes the uncertainty. We want to take the momentum from this and get into substantial contract meetings.”
The union filed a lawsuit in Nassau County State Supreme Court in 2015 following the layoffs of four firefighters and the city’s reorganization of the department after a $55,000 review of its emergency services by the International City/County Management Association’s Center for Public Safety Management. The review concluded that the department could operate more efficiently and that its EMS services and organizational structure were “outdated.”
The restructuring called for cutting the number of career firefighters from 30 to 12 and a number of other changes that ICMA said would save the city about $2 million. The report also called for staffing ambulances with about a dozen civilian paramedics at significantly lower salaries.
The firefighters were let go in 2015 after a two-year, $900,000 federal grant that the city said funded the positions came to an end. That year, it also hired eight paramedics — which the city said would significantly reduce costs and improve response times — to operate the department’s primary ambulance, previously run by the career firefighters.
The move led to a number of divisive council meetings, and many residents, including Republican Nassau County Legislator Denise Ford, questioned the ICMA report’s findings and criticized officials over the cuts.
Union members claimed that the new paramedics — who are also members of Local 287 — were “illegal,” violated the city’s charter and would cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars more per year. They also claimed that the change would jeopardize public safety, saying that career firefighters are trained in advanced life support and that cross-trained firefighters are more efficient.
In its lawsuit, the union claimed that in laying off the firefighters and hiring paramedics, the city violated its own charter and civil service law. It also said that the ICMA report was a tool aimed at dismantling the union and the paid Fire Department “rather than a constructive tool to improve public safety.”
Local 287 called for the firefighters to be reinstated with full back pay, and filed an improper-practice charge with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board.
“We claimed that the decision the city made about the whole restructuring was illegal due to the fact that the city did it mid-fiscal year without a resolution,” Piazza said. “It was never voted on [by the City Council] — that was the biggest point of contention.”
City officials denied any unlawful conduct or claims that the paramedic positions were illegal, and said the city could not afford to keep the four firefighters in the wake of a fiscal crisis. It had encouraged them to apply for the new paramedic positions. City and Fire Department officials had emphasized that the closure of the Long Beach Medical Center after Hurricane Sandy, which led to longer turnaround times for ambulances and strained department resources, was a “driving force” behind the ICMA study.
“We’re happy that we’ve reached an agreement with the paid firefighters’ union, and that they have ended their litigation and we can move forward together and continue the restructuring and reforming of our Fire Department,” City Manager Jack Schnirman said. “Operationally, the paramedics are doing a terrific job, and we’re very pleased with the quality of care that they’re providing. Our response times continue to be excellent and improving as a result of their deployment.”
Still, despite the restructuring, overtime costs remain an issue, officials acknowledged. City officials did not immediately disclose those costs, though the settlement with Local 287 includes an agreement among members to work additional hours at straight time instead of overtime rates. “We’ve agreed to institute some cost-control measures,” Piazza said.
The union said it still has a number of grievances and improper-practice complaints pending against the city, including one focusing on a subcontract between the city and South Nassau Communities Hospital to operate another ambulance for the Fire Department instead of department personnel, which officials said would provide a greater level of safety.
“With the South Nassau [ambulance], they’re not solely for the city of Long Beach; they can actually go out of service and do a private transport,” Piazza said. “So they’re not available to handle 911 calls at times, and any calls they do handle, they get to bill back and the city is missing out on the revenue.”