LAKELAND — The city has been cited for unfair labor practices for retaliating against three Lakeland Fire Department employees.
The state's Public Employees Relations Commission found the fire department's leadership, including Fire Chef Doug Riley, unfairly retaliated against Shannon Turbeville, president of Lakeland Professional Firefighters Local 4173, for asking questions about firefighters' rights to nationally mandated health care benefits in January 2021.
"I'm humbled by the overwhelming support I've received from my family, friends and co-workers, and the superior legal representation graciously provided by the International Association of Fire Fighters," Turbeville said in a statement. "My priority as union president remains the same: To work collaboratively with the City to fairly represent the firefighters that the citizens of Lakeland have entrusted with their lives."
Two lieutenants, Matthew Burns and Michael Shane Gilman, later became targets of retaliatory actions in May 2021 after speaking in defense of Turbeville, according to the commission.
"The city's unlawful actions of imposing discipline on Turbeville had a chilling effect on bargaining unit members' exercise of their right to engage in protected concerted activity," reads Hearing Officer Robert Hanson's order.
Lakeland has 15 days to file an exception to any part of the state's findings. The city received the decision Friday morning and "is reviewing the order and will assess the appropriate legal options upon completion of its review," spokesman Kevin Cook said via email.
The conflict between the Fire Department's administration and Turbeville allegedly started when he was running to become union president. Turbeville told Riley that the assistant chiefs interfered with the union elections by campaigning against him, according to the order.
In January 2021, Turbeville as newlly elected union president wrote an email to the fire chief asking to bargain over announced unilateral changes to firefighters' Life Scan physicals.
The Life Scan physicals had been a major issue in the union's 2020 contract negotiations with the city. The physicals are specifically geared toward those involved in firefighting and focus on the early detection of cancers related to the industry. The city ultimately agreed to pay $400 toward the physical in the union's current contract, which expires Sept. 31.
The National Fire Protection Association requires annual physical examinations and medical tests for fighters. This includes chest X-rays, a tuberculosis skin test, a cardio-pulmonary assessment, blood work and fitness evaluations.
In December 2020, Assistant Chief Rick Hartzog sent an email about the Life Scan physicals stating firefighters could obtain additional tests or screenings at their own cost and would have to travel to Tampa. Hartzog testified to the state that he thought this information was accurate, but later found out it was wrong.
Turbeville sought clarification and to bargain over these changes, according to the union's grievance, and followed up with three additional emails through Feb. 5, 2021. He eventually reached out to staff with the city's human resources department for help getting clarification.
During this time, the firefighters union filed several grievances against the city for not providing proper annual physicals for its members.
"The City ultimately admitted that when Life Scan began providing the physicals, it did not include all the tests and screenings required by the NFPA," reads the state order.
At two events February 2021, Turbeville reported that Hartzog refused to shake his hand while greeting other members of the fire department.
Assistant Fire Chief Michael Williams wrote an email Feb. 18, 2021, to Riley that summarized a Jan. 22 meeting between Williams, another manager and Turbeville about the Life Scan grievance. It stated Turbeville was warned to stop making "baseless accusations' against other employees."
The hearing officer decided the email "was to create a fabricated paper trail" for what the fire chief was about to do.
On Feb. 23, 2021, Riley made a written reprimand against Turbeville for making "baseless accusations." Riley testified that the basis for the reprimand started with the January questions about firefighters' health care, according to the order. It's among the first steps in the fire department's disciplinary system.
Turbeville received the written reprimand at a March 5 meeting. It would be his fourth written reprimand in about 22 years working for the fire department as a drive engineer.
Lt. Burns was at the March 5 meeting acting as a union representative and chairman of the union's grievance committee. Gilman was there as Turbeville's direct supervisor. Both said the reasons for Turbeville's discipline were "weak," according to the order.
Burns told fire department administrators it was "inappropriate" to punish Turbeville for "protected activity" as the union president.
Turbeville filed an unfair labor practice charge against Lakeland in April 2021 over the written reprimand. He was supported by a sworn statement from Burns.
In early May, Burns and Gilman were notified they were to be transferred. Burns, a 17-year employee, didn't request the transfer and didn't have any disciplinary issues or any interpersonal issues, according to the commission. He moved from Station 1, the busiest station, to Station 6.
Gilman, who has worked about 30 years for the fire department, was transferred out of Station 7 at Lakeland Linder International Airport as Turbeville's supervisor. He had no interpersonal issues or disciplinary issues that warranted the transfer, according to the commission. Gilman's work at Station 7 requires special aircraft rescue and fire fighting qualifications that are not needed elsewhere.
The fire department's administrators claim Gilman was transferred for turning his personal performance reviews in late. The hearing officer found Gilman sent it to a supervisor in a timely fashion, but the supervisor went out on a personal trip. No other firefighters were punished for being late handing in reviews, according to the commission.
The decision to transfer Burns and Gilman was made by Assistant Chief Wiliams, with input from Riley. The state commission found this was unusual, as transfer decisions are normally made by the battalion chiefs, who both testified they were unaware of the changes until ordered.
"The urgency for the Battalion Chiefs to complete the transfers, where they had no prior knowledge of the transfers of their subordinates and were unaware of any need for the transfers, indicates an improper motive by the Fire Department’s administration," reads the order.
Riley testified he had input on the transfers, according to the order, which allegedly contradicts his testimony in another case involving Lakeland before the commission.
Following Burns' and Gilman's transfers, the commission found fire department administrators transferred several lieutenants. All six of the department's battalion chiefs were then transferred in July 2021. Not one had requested a transfer.
The state's commission has ordered Lakeland to immediately rescind Turbeville's written reprimand and remove any reference to it from his employee file.
Burns and Gilman should be transferred back to their original fire station assignments, according to the order, restoring status quo before May 2021.
The city also must pay the union's attorney fees and any costs with litigating the case.
The firefighters union opened negotiations with the city May 11 on its next contract, Turbeville said.
Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7545. Follow on Twitter @SaraWalshFl.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Lakeland Fire Department leaders retaliated against union members, commission says