COLUMBUS, OH – Plans to fix a policy that allows Columbus firefighters to sit behind a desk and earn full pay while recovering from an injury — sometimes for years — have stalled because union and city officials cannot reach an agreement.
They’ve been meeting since February to close a hole in the policy that allows firefighters to stay on what’s called “light duty” for years, while forcing the Division of Fire to fill their regular-duty positions by paying overtime.
The meetings were in response to a Dispatch investigation this year that found there were 25 firefighters on light duty, more than half of them for a year or longer.
The reasons included stress; heart and weight problems; and chronic knee, back and shoulder injuries. Fire administrators said they are obligated to create a temporary position for a firefighter if the firefighter’s doctor says he or she can perform some tasks.
The division’s policy is supposed to limit light duty to 90 days, except in rare cases.
But one battalion chief has been on light duty for stress and anxiety for nearly seven years, costing the city more than $1 million.
Chiefs from other large cities such as Cincinnati, Cleveland and Dayton said they don’t allow firefighters to remain on restricted duty for more than a year. Columbus police had 30 officers on injured duty earlier this year, just one for more than a year.
Fire Chief Gregory A. Paxton and union President Jack Reall, who is also a battalion chief, have advocated changes that wean firefighters off light duty and back into their normal positions or into a disability retirement.
Talks to fix the policy have been slowed, Reall said, because the union wants the city to follow the grievance process in the union contract if the city decides to terminate an employee. The city, meanwhile, continues to insist that the union give up its right to file grievances over light-duty decisions, he said.
“We also want to bring more of the light-duty process within the Fire Division as much as possible and not in the safety director’s office,” Reall said. Too much bureaucracy is forcing injured firefighters to wait months for treatment, he said, and that is contributing to extended stints on injury leave.
Brooke Carnevale, the Safety Department’s human-resources director, has said the union has resisted changing the policy. Reall said the union has not been an obstacle and reiterated yesterday that change is needed.
Paxton and his staff drafted a proposal after the Dispatch investigation. It calls for an end date after a firefighter exhausts steps to be rehabilitated. The draft also stipulates that the division no longer has to create a desk position for an injured firefighter.
If a light-duty position is not open, the firefighter would have to use sick leave and vacation time or return to work.
One major change in the draft states:
“The Fire Chief shall review the status of members who are unable to consistently perform their regularly assigned duties for a 1-year period. The chief may refer a member to the safety director for an investigation to determine fitness for duty. To determine fitness for duty, division members shall be required to participate in an interactive process and produce medical documentation from the member’s physician or appropriate attending medical professional.”
Paxton said yesterday he has not been involved in the discussions because they involve issues between the Department of Public Safety and the fire union.
Amanda Ford, spokeswoman for the safety department, said in an email that officials met with City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer’s office last week to discuss the union’s issues.
“They plan to meet with (Reall) one more time to try and resolve the issues,” Ford wrote. “Once that meeting has taken place, the city will move forward with issuing the new systems manual revision division wide.”