New London agrees to postpone layoffs, wait for court hearing
New London — The mayor's office has postponed the layoffs of 25 firefighters in light of a request by the union for a court injunction.
"We've been directed by the mayor to continue with the status quo,'' Fire Chief Ronald Samul said Tuesday, shortly before the 5:30 p.m. deadline by which the laid-off firefighters were required to turn in their equipment and badges. "For how long, I don't know,'' he added. "Today's been a long day."
Jane Glover, the city's chief administrative officer, said the postponement is "day-to-day." The administration heard late Tuesday that the union was seeking a legal remedy.
"We're waiting to see what action the union is taking,'' she said. "We're not in a hurry to lay people off. If the union has legal action it can take, we wouldn't stand in their way.''
Firefighters on duty at headquarters on Bank Street were quiet as fellow workers began trickling in to turn in their badges. But when news broke that the layoffs were postponed, the mood changed.
"The union has filed for an injunction,'' Battalion Chief Thomas Curcio announced, standing in the doorway of the station. "Al, you're coming to work,'' he said to Alfred Mayo, one of those who were about to turn in their badges. "The layoffs are rescinded. We just heard, and now we're trying to get hold of people."
Mayo, the department's most recent hire, is the first black firefighter hired by the city since 1978. He underwent a controversial hiring process before starting the job in May.
"You're back, buddy,'' Curcio said, shaking Mayo's hand and hugging him. "Go get your gear."
Union President Rocco Basilica started to explain the details of the legal action that was filed Tuesday in New London Superior Court but was called away to respond to a four-car crash on the Gold Star Memorial Bridge.
"Sorry folks, I have to go,'' he said.
Local 1522 attorney Eric Chester was in the Superior Court civil clerk's office just before 5 p.m. Tuesday, waiting for confirmation that his injunction order had been accepted and signed by a judge. Chester, an attorney out of Rocky Hill, said the injunction would do two things: prohibit the city from going below minimum staffing levels of 18 personnel per shift, which is mandated by the union's contract, and prohibit the city from reducing staffing to make it impossible to fill those shifts.
The layoffs would create those two scenarios, Chester said.
"You just can't fill two 18-person shifts per day with 41 people for any period of time without putting them at risk to the extent that they're already in harm's way," Chester said at the courthouse.
He said he planned to the serve the city with the order this morning. A court clerk said a hearing date on the injunction is set for Aug. 6.
"We respect and will follow the process and will refer all questions to the law department," Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said in a statement early in the afternoon.
Later Tuesday evening, mayoral assistant Zak Leavy said the city hadn't been served with any legal notice, but if an injunction hearing has been scheduled, the layoffs would be postponed until then.
The mood at fire headquarters Tuesday had been grim. The nearly four-month drama between the mayor and the City Council over funding for the fire department's $8.9 million budget came to a screeching halt Monday night when the council tabled a tentative agreement with the union that would have saved all 25 jobs.
Those on duty at the Bank Street firehouse earlier Tuesday were examining the work schedule, which showed three vacancies for the overnight shift when factoring in the layoffs.
Firefighters on duty Tuesday said they could not talk to the press, but at Monday night's meeting, 10 firefighters asked the council to approve the tentative agreement, which would lower minimum staffing levels, cut the workforce through attrition and transfer the pensions of the city's 56 or so firefighters from a 401(a) savings plan to the Connecticut Municipal Employees Retirement System.
"This is has been difficult for me, my family and the entire department,'' said Kurt Fetzer at Monday's council meeting. Fetzer is a 14-year member of the department and one of the 25 being laid off. "The message we are getting is that we are not valued and are being used as pawns, yet every day, we put our lives on the line."
"We all face a roller coaster of emotions,'' firefighter Jeffrey Rheaume said. "But we remain focused.''
Deputy Fire Chief Henry Kydd, a 34-year veteran of the department, told the council he has never seen a similar situation in the city. He warned that with the personnel cuts, response times to emergencies would go up, and people's lives could be in danger.
"I feel members that are left will be in jeopardy. They will be forced to work all the overtime. They will be ordered in and their health and private lives will be in jeopardy,'' Kydd said at the meeting.
"You guys need to rethink and focus on what's right for the City of New London and what's right to protect the citizens of the city," he said.
Staff Writer Sasha Goldstein contributed to this report.