KCK says it fired Black firefighter for double-dipping. He says it was racism

Steve Vockrodt
·7 min read

Jyan Harris showed up to a fifth floor conference room at City Hall in Kansas City, Kansas, on July 15, 2016, for a meeting with human resources.

Harris, who is Black, had tried repeatedly to arrange a meeting with human resources for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, to discuss what he believed was race discrimination and harassment he suffered while working for the Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department.

Instead of someone hearing his complaints, Harris found himself accused by top county officials of double-dipping. UG records appeared to indicate that he got paid for work with the Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department and the Wyandotte County Parks & Recreation Department on a handful of days in 2015.

Soon after, he was suspended without pay and subsequently fired in 2018.

Harris sued the Unified Government in 2018 in federal court in Kansas, alleging race discrimination and harassment. The trial started Thursday and is continuing this week.

The lawsuit said that when he was injured on the job in 2013, Harris was forced to use personal days off while he recuperated. White firefighters, on the other hand, were allowed to use injured time when they got hurt.

When he returned, Harris alleged he was subject to repeated instances of harassment by his superiors.

Attorneys for Harris called that July 2016 meeting an ambush, part of a larger pretext for firing Harris, who they say was subjected to race discrimination and harassment as a member of the KCKFD.

The allegation that Harris double dipped, they suggested over the course of several hours of questioning of the UG’s top human resources official, was based on a sloppy, selective and incomplete investigation by the UG.

All the while, human resources at UG did not look into his claims of harassment and retaliation, mainly because a top county official intervened and instructed human resources to hold off, according to testimony in the case.

Renee Ramirez, the director of human resources for the UG, acknowledged that now she wishes she could have started an investigation of Harris’ claims of retaliation.

“As of today, looking back, yes,” Ramirez said in response to a question by Harris’s attorney Katherine Myers.

When questioned by Ryan Denk, a lawyer representing the UG, Ramirez discussed records that appear to show that Harris got paid for working in both departments at the same time, and had called in sick one day from the fire department and worked instead for a youth program through the UG’s parks and recreation department.

The trial shows signs of delving into racism within the KCKFD, a large — it has more than 400 employees — and prominent institution in Wyandotte County. Its union carries political clout in county affairs.

Ramierz in her testimony acknowledged that race discrimination has been a problem in the UG, but denied that race factored into Harris’ termination.

“It had nothing to do with his race,” Ramirez testified. “It had everything to do with the information that was provided to me by the fire department and the parks and recreation department.”

Harassment claims not investigated

UG human resources policy says there’s no tolerance for retaliation and discrimination in the work place; a complaint of it should warrant an investigation into the matter.

Ramirez, whose employment with the UG dates back to 1985, said complaints coming into human resources involve taking information from the employee who is raising an issue.

Except in one case, she testified Friday. That was when Harris, a firefighter for KCKFD since 2004, wanted to make a complaint.

Ramirez testified that Joe Connor, an assistant UG county administrator who oversees human resources, told her to hold off on dealing with Harris. Ramirez never took a statement from Harris and no investigation into his claims of harassment ever took place.

Harris had complained to others in the UG about what he experienced working as a Black firefighter. He met with UG administrator Doug Bach in June 2016 in a meeting brokered by the Rev. Jimmie Banks, a pastor at Strangers Rest Baptist Church.

In that meeting, Harris told Bach of the treatment he was given when he got hurt on the job in 2013 and the subsequent harassment he endured. According to Harris’ lawsuit, Bach asked if Harris believed he received the ill treatment because of his race, which Harris said he did.

Harris repeated his concerns with then-UG Mayor Mark Holland.

It’s not clear why Connor intervened to stop an investigation into Harris’ complaints; Connor hasn’t testified and a UG spokesperson said it would reserve comment while the trial remained ongoing.

But Ramirez’s testimony indicates that an investigation into Harris had been going on since at least 2015.

Harris worked each summer for a youth program through the Wyandotte County Parks and Recreation Department. He was in charge of looking after young kids attending a summer program at the Eisenhower Community Center. The job paid $10.98 an hour, less than half of what he made as a firefighter.

UG human resources first learned about Harris’ summer camp work when the Kansas Department of Labor investigated the Wyandotte County Parks and Recreation Department.

The investigation was triggered when a camp worker who was classified as an independent contractor filed for unemployment benefits.

Ramirez testified that she looked into the matter because she wasn’t aware that the parks department was hiring independent contractors. The possibility that the workers were misclassified as independent contractors when they should have been considered employees posed a risk to the UG, especially if they worked more than 40 hours a week and were not being paid overtime, as was the case with several of the parks workers in question.

“We were looking at all the employees who were participants of that program and Mr. Harris happened to be one of those participants,” Ramirez testified.

Firefighters work unusual schedules. In KCK, they work 24-hour shifts, followed by 48 hours off before they take on another shift.

As human resources began looking at Harris’ work schedule, they discovered instances in which it appeared that Harris worked and was paid for a shift as a firefighter on days that he also was paid for hours worked as a parks employee, which would place him at two places at one time.

But Harris’ lawyer questioned whether Ramirez had fully investigated the possibility that Harris traded his fire shifts away on days that it showed he was paid at both departments.

Questions about shift trades

Time trading is another peculiarity with firefighter shifts.

In most jobs, if someone needs a colleague to cover their shift, the worker covering that shift clocks in and gets paid for working those hours.

With KCKFD, if a firefighter trades a shift, he or she is still paid as though they actually worked the shift. The person covering the shift is not paid.

In ordinary circumstances, the trade is reciprocated later on, but there’s no requirement in the fire union’s contract for trades to be returned.

“It could be a swap for time, a swap for no time,” testified Robert Wing, the former business manager for International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 64, the bargaining unit for KCKFD employees. “I’ve said publicly, it could be a swap for a hamburger.”

Former UG Mayor Holland led an investigation into KCKFD shift trading practices in 2018. He accused the fire department of corruption when a payroll analysis done by his office suggested an imbalanced trading system that resulted in nearly $1 million being paid out to KCKFD employees for shifts that were never worked. Some firefighters worked too many shifts, some firefighters worked too few shifts or none at all and still got paid as though they did.

Wing on Tuesday denied that there was any loss to taxpayers through shift trading.

But the analysis indicated, and testimony this week supports, that recordkeeping of shift trading was poor. The KCKFD at the time used paper slips to record the trades.

Steve Long, a former KCKFD captain, testified that sometimes time trade slips were thrown away.

“Hit and miss,” Long said Tuesday when asked about the accuracy of time trade slips.

Myers, Harris’ lawyer, peppered Ramirez on this point. Under questioning, Ramirez acknowledged never having asked to see trade slips for Harris for the days in question. She said she asked the fire department for information for her investigation and relied on what they provided her, which was that he hadn’t traded shifts on those days.

Myers also showed Ramirez how fire department records were often wrong.

Myers asked if Ramirez investigated to ensure the records she reviewed were accurate.

“Wouldn’t that be important to do before taking someone’s job away?” Myers asked.

“I felt the investigation we did was accurate,” Ramirez replied.

This version corrects the spelling of Jimmie Banks.