Alleging unlawful harassment and retaliation by Oak Bluffs EMS/Fire Department Chief John Rose, along with attempts by the chief and town administrator Robert Whritenour to tarnish the reputation of firefighters who voted to unionize, attorneys for the International Association of Fire Fighters, AFL-CIO (IAFF) have filed a complaint against the town of Oak Bluffs with the Massachusetts Department of Labor.
The July 24 complaint alleges the town “has retaliated against full-time, permanent firefighters for engaging in protected, concerted activity, including their efforts to organize.”
They are allegations the chief and the town deny.
All inquiries in the complaint will be addressed under oath at an investigatory hearing, which is being fast-tracked, according to lead negotiator Bob McCarthy, IAFF district field service representative and president emeritus of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts.
On July 13, eight of the 10 full-time Oak Bluffs firefighter/paramedics voted to become members of IAFF Local 5137, the first IAFF chapter on Martha’s Vineyard.
The IAFF complaint cites four recent policy changes instituted by Chief Rose, including a change in pay allocation, giving volunteer or “call” firefighters priority for overtime hours, stopping a nine-year practice of giving rides to and from the ferry for paramedic/firefighters who commute from off-Island, and stating that employees can only be away from the station for 30 minutes, and only if they have “good reason.”
“By the above and other acts, the above-named employer has interfered with, restrained and coerced employees in the exercise of their rights under the Law,” the complaint states.
Additionally, on August 3, attorney James Hykel, with Boston-based firm Pyle Rome, representing the IAFF, sent Oak Bluffs labor counsel Jack Collins a scathing three-page letter that details Chief Rose’s alleged “brutal management style that has caused disarray and depressed morale” in the OBFD. The letter also criticises town administrator Robert Whritenour’s defense of Chief Rose in a July 26 article in The Times (“Town administrator, command staffers, back Oak Bluffs fire chief”), describing it as “uncontrolled, paranoid rage.”
“We write to document the Town’s stream of unlawful retaliation and hostility, and demand that the Town cease and desist unlawful efforts to punish firefighters for joining a union and make firefighters whole for the unlawful actions taken thus far. Without adequate remedy, the nascent union will be forced to take immediate legal action, including pursuit of injunctive relief,” Mr. Hykel said.
‘Ceaseless retaliation’ alleged
Mr. Hykel said the IAFF was forced to take legal action as a result of “the Town’s unlawful efforts to keep the full-time paramedic/firefighters from organizing,” which included “ceaseless retaliation.”
Mr. Hykel stated a long list of alleged transgressions by Chief Rose, which allegedly began shortly after paramedic/firefighters began signing union authorization cards earlier this year. “Soon after the chief became aware of this activity, he made several substantial changes to the firefighters’ working conditions. (The town knows which firefighters signed cards.)” he said in the letter. “The chief’s changes serve to financially harm the firefighters and intimidate them from engaging in protected activity.”
Mr. Hykel states Chief Rose implemented a “blatantly illegal pay policy that refused to compensate firefighters for all time worked.” He cited a June 16 email from Chief Rose to the rank and file, stating the department will be changing a longstanding policy of paying to the quarter-hour, and will now pay to the half-hour. “Chief Rose [states] a firefighter who performed 15 minutes of extra work would not be paid for this time unless the firefighter stays a full half-hour, and then only if the firefighter finds a way to ‘stay productive.’ Chief Rose claimed this policy was approved by the Town’s attorney. For your sake, we hope this claim is inaccurate. The recent rescission of the policy suggests you did not.”
Town labor counsel Jack Collins told The Times Monday the policy was rescinded after the town learned of the union complaint. When Chief Rose proposed the idea to the rank and file, there were no objections, he said. “The chief was trying to be a nice guy,” he said. “He said it’s going to be better for you guys if we do it by the half-hour. It’ll cost the town more money, but it’ll be fairer to you and easier for bookkeeping. No one complained, so he said, ‘Fine, we’ll do it.’ The chief is fine with it going back to the old way.”
Although the new pay policy has been scrapped, Mr. Hykel requested that Chief Rose send a notice to all firefighters, acknowledging that he violated the law, that he will honor the collective bargaining rights of the IAFF Local 5137, and that “he will not retaliate, intimidate or discriminate against firefighters for exercising rights to collective action.”
Mr. Hykel said that before the full-time firefighter/paramedics unionized, they were offered overtime shifts before the volunteer firefighters, but since the organizing, the call, or volunteer, firefighters have had first dibs. “This is blatant retaliation,” he said.
Other recent policy changes are alleged to be payback by the chief.
Mr. Hykel cited two memorandums issued by Chief Rose on July 5 “that substantially changed firefighters’ working conditions.”
The first memo stated that off-Island commuters would no longer get rides to and from the ferry. “This is a small and substantial courtesy that recognizes the sacrifice of [firefighter/paramedics] willing to work on the Island,” he said. “This multiyear practice ceased only when firefighters organized.” Mr. Hykel said that Chief Rose’s claim that the longstanding policy suddenly had a negative impact on Fire/EMS readiness was “ludicrous.”
“That claim is self-evidently absurd, as established by the duration of the practice without consequence,” he said. “As a result of the chief’s unlawful change, firefighters now have incurred significant inconvenience and expense to reach the station. We intend to seek reimbursement of all financial costs associated with this change in policy.”
Chief Rose issued another directive on July 5 that stopped another longstanding practice at OBFD. “For years, firefighters could leave the station to spend break time with families, shop for station groceries, engage in concerted, protected activity, and perform similar tasks,” Mr. Hykel said. “The chief prohibited firefighters from being away from the station during their shift unless they received explicit permission to do so — which they never were required to have before … The implication, of course, is that concerted, protected activity is not a good reason.” Mr. Hykel added that Chief Rose cited no incident that prompted the change in protocol. “The only reasonable explanation for this change is firefighter efforts to organize and improve their working conditions. Similarly, the chief also violated the law by requiring lieutenants to monitor firefighters, and to hold them accountable for when they grant leave during a shift.”
It’s also alleged that Chief Rose changed the department’s attendance policy by personally monitoring firefighters’ daily arrival and disciplining them for “brief tardiness.”
“Previously, firefighters were allowed to be a few minutes late without consequence, especially if the delay was attributable to ferry travel,” Mr. Hykel wrote in his letter. “This unprecedented enforcement of a rule in response to union organizing clearly is retaliatory.”
Chief counters claims
In a conversation with The Times on Monday, Chief Rose adamantly denied taking any retaliatory action against the unionizing rank and file.
“There has absolutely been no retaliation at all,” he said. “If you look at the complaint about picking up people at the boat, when we first started doing that, we had one full-time person living off-Island. That meant picking up one person at the boat every four days, because they worked a 24-hour shift. Now we have seven full-time people that live off-Island. When we first started picking up people off-Island, they worked a 24-hour shift, one day on, four days off. Now we have seven employees who live off-Island, and three different shifts in which they work … That’s five times per day we’re dropping or picking up somebody at the boat. With traffic and the bridge, it’s not realistic. It’s not retaliation, it’s reality. When the boat comes in late, the person picking them up is charging me overtime for that. Then when that person is on a call, they’re getting interrupted when they’re supposed to be saving somebody’s life.”
Regarding the allegation that call firefighters were getting preferential treatment for overtime, Chief Rose stated, “As it stands now, we do not issue overtime to call firefighters. They’re volunteers. They get a $1,000 stipend twice a year.”
Chief Rose said his July 5 memo stating employees could not be away from the station for more than 30 minutes, without “good reason,” was prompted by an incident on July 4.
“It was Fourth of July, arguably the Island’s busiest day, and my on-duty paramedic had left the station for several hours,” he said. “We could not reach that employee for several hours, and the employee didn’t notify anybody. I called three times and sent two text messages. I’m responsible for making sure that ambulance is at the ready. When someone is gone and you don’t know where they are, you have to implement policy saying you have to notify either the chief or an officer so I know where they are or the person in charge of the shift knows where they are. I try to be lenient, but when you leave the station for that amount of time, that is taking advantage.”
Echoing Mr. Collins, Chief Rose maintained the change in pay increments, which has since been rescinded, was intended to benefit the rank and file, not to punish them. “I did that because we were having a lot of confusion,” he said. “In the memo it clearly states, I never wanted an employee to lose time. If anything, I was granting employees permission to stay later and get extra time on their payroll. We were having a lot of confusion with the employees and administration, because they were writing down crazy stuff like ‘Back to the station at 9 o’clock and 13 minutes, 9 o’clock and 16 minutes, 9 o’clock and 18 minutes.’ We were attempting to make it easier for everybody. You get back to the station at 9:10, you stay to 9:30, get that extra half-hour of pay, everybody’s happy, all I ask them to do is to stay busy. It caused confusion. There seemed like there was an unsettled feeling about it, so I switched it back. You have to try different things when you’re trying to better your system. It’s very important to me that they get paid for every second that they work.”
Smear campaign alleged
Referring to the July 26 article in The Times, Mr. Hykel asserted that Chief Rose and Mr. Whritenour have tried to “publicly tarnish, if not defame, the union-supporting firefighters” by disclosing items in personnel records and making false claims about their performance.
“In response to an article that accurately described the impetus behind union organizing, the town offered a ‘rebuttal’ article that confirmed that firefighters were right to fear reprisal,” he wrote.
Describing the town’s response as “infantile,” Mr. Hykel made a searing assessment of Mr. Whritenour’s actions to defend Chief Rose. He assailed Mr. Whritenour’s on-the-record statements as “uncontrolled, paranoid rage.”
“There appears to be no bounds to the personal information Whritenour, in his tinfoil rant, will disclose or about whom … After claiming he was ‘not here to assassinate the character’ of anyone, Whritenour then proceeded to itemize perceived conspiracies by past and current employees against Chief Rose … He claimed there have been ‘campaigns of terror’ launched by a former employee and his ‘cabal.’” Whritenour outed the name of a female employee who claimed an inappropriate relationship with Chief Rose after she declined to be named in the initial article, as well as that of another employee rumored to have engaged in an inappropriate relationship with Chief Rose. Whritenour also disclosed a staff member’s relationship with a current employee, and her discipline for that relationship. Whritenour even saw fit to comment on why he thought her previous marriage failed. That leads us to the only limits of Whritenour’s rage: Rose is the only employee he protects against complaints or independent assessments. Whritenour does not extend this courtesy to firefighters.”
Mr. Hykel said Mr. Whritenour’s description of OBFD firefighter/paramedics Chris Flanders and Kevin Kilduff as “the worst paramedics I’ve ever seen” was another attempt to retaliate and intimidate those who spoke out against Chief Rose.
“One can hardly be surprised that firefighters viewed solidarity and union organizing as ways to combat bullying,” Mr. Hykel said.
Mr. Whritenour could not be reached for comment. According to his office, he is out on a week’s bereavement leave after the death of his father-in-law.
In an interview with The Times on July 13, Mr. Whritenour said he was not averse to unionization at OBFD, and that he didn’t see it as a campaign against Chief Rose. “I don’t see a big list of grievances or issues like that,” he said. “There’s been a lot of attention to work rules and procedures around the EMTs. There’s a good amount of structure we’ve put in place. If they think there’s additional protections with the union, we’ll certainly explore that.”
‘Cease and desist’
The IAFF, through Mr. Hykel, has made a public records request of all records related to every investigation of Chief Rose during his time in Oak Bluffs, including the investigation(s) into Chief Rose’s conduct with female subordinates, and any discipline issued to Chief Rose. It has also requested Mr. Whritenour and Chief Rose’s personnel records.
“Further, the [IAFF] demands that the town immediately cease and desist from retaliating against firefighters for organizing, including reducing their pay, reducing their hours, revoking benefits, unreasonably restricting their work time, and assassinating their character in the press.”
In closing, Mr. Hykel said the IAFF “will not hesitate to amend this charge, file additional charges, or seek an injunction if the Town’s rampant retaliation does not stop.”
As of Monday, Mr. Hykel said, the town had not replied to his letter.
Mr. Collins told The Times he had just returned from vacation and had not yet seen the letter, but would respond in due course.