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Red faces and angry voices on firefighters issue in Newton

Posted by Ralph Ranalli March 12, 2007 03:19 PM



A free-for-all during a press conference today signaled a new escalation in the long-running, bitter dispute between the mayor and the firefighters union.

A battle of words erupted when a union supporter drowned out Mayor David B. Cohen, who continued to charge that firefighter absenteeism has been higher than that of other city employees even has he admitted that the city released incorrect data last year that exaggerated the problem.

“These are lies,” shouted Jessica Locke, of Watertown, while Cohen tried to make his case.

They talked over each other for several minutes, until Locke stormed out of the office and slammed the door.

Locke, who runs a nonprofit organization she calls the Firefighters Fund, has calculated with the help of the union that firefighters called in sick about 6 percent of the time in 2002.

That is at odds with a chart made by city employees showing the firefighters’ rate of absenteeism at 14 percent that year. Cohen admitted today that the figure was wrong, and put the absenteeism at only about half that rate, about 6.7 percent that year. That chart was provided to the Globe last November, and the figure was included in an article about firefighter sick leave.

Cohen insisted, however, that the sick leave rate for firefighters was still higher than that of other city employees, including police officers, at 5 percent, and all other departments at 4 percent or below. He said the furor over the mistake from firefighters was a “red herring” to take attention away from contract negotiations.

Sick time is the sticking point in the negotiations between the city and firefighters, and has stalled a settlement for more than three years. The city has a sick-leave policy requiring firefighters to bring a note from a doctor after they return to work from sick leave to prove their illness or that of a family member.

Cohen said the policy has allowed the city to save more than $500,000 per year in overtime that formerly was paid to firefighters to cover for colleagues who called in sick. Firefighters say the policy is demeaning and not applied to other city employees.

-- Connie Paige

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