Firefighters union files grievance against Fla. county for discrimination

The union claims a captain was denied a promotion because of discrimination by administrators

John Chambliss
The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.

BARTOW — The union representing Polk County firefighters has filed a grievance against the county, claiming a captain was denied a promotion because of discrimination by administrators.

The grievance, filed in December, alleges that Capt. Jay Schwartz, who is also the former union president of Polk County IAFF Local 3531, was denied the job because of his age, union activity, and involvement in two public incidents that portrayed the county in a negative light.

Deputy County Manager Joe Halman wrote in a response in January that the allegations were baseless.

"To say the least, this is absurd, false and not true," Halman wrote. He added that the department's current goal was to fill lower level positions while providing overtime opportunities for those in other positions.

"In addition, Jay Schwartz serving as union president and/or in the union has no bearing on being promoted," Halman wrote. "As a matter of reference, (Battalion Chief) Brian Golden was/is involved with the same union and he was promoted despite his union affiliation."

Halman could not be reached for comment Monday.

The county promoted the top three scorers to battalion chief in 2018. But Schwartz, who was fourth with a score of 75 percent, was not promoted.

The position was never filled, and currently there is an additional battalion chief opening, said Derek Walsh, president of the union.

Union officials said Schwartz's involvement in fighting a house fire last April while he was off duty was initially criticized by top county fire officials.

"His actions during this incident were berated by the Battalion Chief that arrived on scene and this resulted in an investigation in Captain Schwartz's actions and responsibilities while off duty," wrote Vernon Austin, the grievance chairman for the union.

Austin wrote that media reports painted administrators in a bad light, "and we feel this passing over for promotion is in retaliation for the less than positive depiction."

Schwartz was later cleared of any wrongdoing and awarded for his actions.

The grievance also mentions a case Schwartz, now a member of the union's health and safety committee, filed in 2018 against the county for violating a contractual pay agreement.

In that case, the firefighters union filed a grievance over a lack of raises for first-year firefighters, saying county administrators failed to follow a contract that states new firefighters should have received a 3.5 percent increase in pay soon after the contract was ratified.

Rather than fight the grievance, the county approved immediate raises for first-year firefighters.

"This incident was also picked up by the local newspaper and the County's reputation fared no better in this article than in the previous news stories," Austin wrote, adding that top county officials have spoken in open meetings about the issues being in the media.

"It appears Management has a personal dislike for Captain Schwartz because of these events," Austin wrote.

In the grievance, he described Schwartz, 53, as the oldest candidate who passed a promotional process, causing union officials to have concerns that his age could be a factor with the job.

Austin wrote that the county allowed others who have been promoted to battalion chief to obtain qualifications in a three-year period.

"Captain Schwartz has 30-plus years of experience and met all the requirements for the promotional process he successfully passed," Austin wrote.

The case will now be in the hands of a federal arbitrator, who will be chosen by the two sides in the coming weeks.

The arbitrator will then hear both sides and make a ruling.


©2019 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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