Posted on August 21, 2012
TOWN OF BERLIN, MARYLAND
Office of the Mayor
For Information Contact:
Tony Carson, Town Administrator
ABUSE OF PAID EMS EMPLOYEES FORCES
TOWN OF BERLIN TO CEASE ALL
FINANCIAL AID TO BERLIN FIRE COMPANY
Fire Company Refuses to Accept Town’s Personnel Standards Requiring
EMS Employees the Right to a Safe and Non-Hostile Workplace
August 21, 2012 — The Mayor and Council of the Town of Berlin will amend its Fiscal 2013 budget to cease all financial aid to the Berlin Fire Company (BFC) as a result of the organization’s inability to accept basic requirements of the Town’s personnel policies to eliminate workplace harassment based on sexual orientation, race and sex, of paid Emergency Medical Services, (EMS) employees at the Berlin Fire House.
The funding support is also being withdrawn from the budget because the BFC has seriously breached the terms of an employment agreement for paid EMS personnel with the town in effect since 2009.
“Over the past six months the Mayor and Council have done all that we can within our legal and moral authority to protect the rights of the paid EMS personnel who have been working as leased employees under the terms of an agreement enacted January 1, 2009,” said Mayor Gee Williams. “The Fire Company has been unsuccessful in its attempts to prevent some volunteer members from harassing Berlin’s paid EMS employees in the workplace that the Town firmly believes is both unacceptable and illegal,” he added.
The agreement to have paid EMS personnel begin working as employees of the Town of Berlin in 2009 was made at the request of the Berlin Fire Company in order for them to be eligible for state retirement and town health benefits. The State of Maryland and the Town of Berlin made it clear that the employment of the EMS personnel, even as leased employees, could not be a sham and in the agreement stated the, “Mayor and Council shall have primary direction and control over paid EMS personnel through its Town Administrator, in accordance with the Town of Berlin’s personnel policies and manual.”
In late February of this year, paid EMS personnel at the Berlin Fire Company informed the Town of Berlin of complaints of discriminatory practices in the workplace, including harassment and threats of retaliation based on sexual orientation, race and sex. The complaints were lodged against both paid EMS employees and volunteer members of the Berlin Fire Company.
The Town Administrator and Human Resources Director immediately investigated the allegations and interviewed all 10 full-time EMS employees. As a result of the findings of the town’s investigation, the allegations of discriminatory practices based upon sexual orientation, race and sex were corroborated and found to be credible, according to the Mayor and Council.
As this was a personnel matter, the Mayor and Council met in executive session on March 12 and voted unanimously to direct David Gaskill, the town’s legal counsel, to prepare a memorandum for delivery the next day to the Berlin Fire Company informing the organization of the town’s finding that the complaints by the paid EMS employees were credible. The memo stated, the town found the harassment complaints constituted violations, in the Town’s opinion, of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and of Maryland law, all of which prohibit such conduct in the work place.
The memorandum, dated March 13, 2012, also stated the disciplinary actions for some paid EMS employees the Mayor and Council had determined were necessary and appropriate to ensure that no discriminatory practices would continue by any paid EMS personnel employed by the Town of Berlin. As the Town of Berlin has no oversight authority over volunteer members, the memo further stated, “It is also certainly in the interest of the Berlin Fire Company to ensure that this illegal activity ceases immediately, as it is subject to immense liability if a suit were to be filed against it.”
Several weeks of communication followed between the town’s attorney, and Joe Moore, counsel for the Berlin Fire Company. The Berlin Fire Company accepted the March memorandum on May 11, only after being informed by the Mayor and Council that the Fire Company could not make its annual budget request without accepting the “memorandum in its entirety.”
This summer, the Berlin Fire Company conducted a separate investigation of the allegations of harassment by EMS employees and made some changes in their volunteer command structure as a result of their internal findings. The town has continued to receive reports of harassment of EMS employees by fire company volunteer members during the summer, which have been immediately shared with BFC leaders.
David Fitzgerald, BFC president, on August 16, presented the town with a written statement announcing, “Effective immediately, the Berlin Fire Company will assume full control, direction and supervision over all emergency medical services (EMS) personnel.” The statement also said the Company has been increasingly concerned about its ability to respond to emergencies because the Town has attempted to enlarge its scope of direction and control over personnel matters in accordance with the Town’s personnel policies and manual, to operational matters related to fire and emergency medical services.
The fire company, despite the clearly written terms of the 2009 agreement, now says the Town has no authority, or expertise, to do so and their attempts to work with the Town have been unsuccessful.
“It is evident from the decision of the fire company’s leadership last week to assume full control, direction and supervision over all EMS personnel, that the Berlin Fire Company is not making a sincere effort to end the harassment and have not been acting in good faith with the Town of Berlin to resolve these issues,” said Mayor Williams.
“As a result of their decision, which in effect, breaches and dissolves both the original 2009 memorandum of agreement and the more recent memo of March 13, the Mayor and Council have no alternative other than to immediately disassociate the Town of Berlin with the Berlin Fire Company. We have been both disappointed and appalled with the fire company during this entire episode,” the mayor added.
“As the elected representatives for the Town of Berlin, we feel we have done everything we can to correct this situation, but without success. The inability of the current fire company leadership to work with the town on these employment issues has left us with no choice but to immediately cease all funding to the Berlin Fire Company. We have an obligation to all citizens and taxpayers of Berlin to not expose the Town to any financial risk resulting from what we believe are impending legal actions surrounding this matter,” Mayor Williams said.
The BFC complains in their most recent statement they face incidents relating to emergency responses, scheduling and staffing that are needlessly arising and points to a marked decrease in the level of volunteer participation when an emergency situation arises.
“The excuses made by the Berlin Fire Company to breach the EMS employment agreement with the town are disingenuous,” said Mayor Williams. “The Town has sought to hire an additional full-time EMS paramedic since the spring that is in the approved ambulance budget, but the BFC has not cooperated with the Town Administrator or Human Resources, claiming the needs of the ambulance service can be met solely by volunteers.
“To claim that their operational problems are the fault of the town is ludicrous and illogical. Their continued problems with volunteer EMS participation and command and control issues are a direct result of the failure of fire company leadership to stop all abusive workplace behavior and fill the paid EMS vacancy as requested by the Town,” the mayor added.
The Berlin Fire Company currently owes the Town of Berlin in excess of $150,000 for their share of costs for payroll expenses for paid EMS personnel for June, July and to date in August. The Mayor and Council are demanding immediate payment of these expenses that the Town has already paid for the fire company.
The current fiscal 2013 town budget allocated $342,000 to the Berlin Fire Company and $215,360 to the fire company’s ambulance service for a total annual grant of $557,360, the same amount as the previous fiscal year. The current Berlin Fire Company budget is $775,950 and the ambulance budget is an additional $1,170,235 for total expenses of $1,946,185. The town’s grants to the BFC and EMS operations are 28½ percent of the total Berlin Fire Company’s annual budget.
“We expect the Berlin Fire Company to plead that termination of financial support by the town will impair their ability to provide firefighting and ambulance services to the community. On numerous occasions BFC leadership was warned by the Mayor and Council of the dire financial consequences that would result, if they did not stop what we believe to be the unacceptable treatment directed to paid EMS personnel employed by the Town. Despite repeated warnings, they made their own bed, now they can lie in it,” Mayor Williams said.
“The Town has always been very generous in its support of the Berlin Fire Company, even in the most challenging of financial times,” the mayor said. “Apparently, this support is not only taken for granted, but is considered an entitlement. The Berlin Fire Company will simply have to operate on a tighter budget than they have been accustomed to, just like the Town of Berlin and many of our citizens have had to in recent years,” Williams added. “With financial support, there is also the responsibility of accepting the standards of the community they serve and an expectation of respect for basic human dignity.”
“It is the opinion of some fire company members that the Town of Berlin is required to provide, and the Berlin Fire Company is entitled to, financial support regardless of the moral, ethical or legal consequences of their actions,” Mayor Williams noted. “We are not required by any local or state mandate to provide financial grants or assistance to the Berlin Fire Company. Less than 50 percent of the municipalities in Maryland provide any funding whatsoever for the volunteer fire companies in their jurisdiction.”
“The Mayor and Council are unanimous in our belief that financial support from the town for the fire company be withheld until such time that the few BFC volunteers or paid EMS employees who engaged in what we believe to be unacceptable workplace harassment at the fire house are no longer affiliated with the Berlin Fire Company in any manner, even if this takes several years to accomplish,” the mayor stated.”
Daily Times Editorial Aug. 22, 2012
Bayside Gazette Editorial Aug. 23, 2012