West Covina firefighters accuse fire chief of retaliation amid labor dispute

West Covina firefighters take their contract dispute with City Hall to the street by picketing at the corner of Vincent Avenue and Lakes Drive, then marching to the Civic Center bringing attention to their contract dispute with city officials Nov. 30, 2016.  The firefighters’ union has been without a contract for more than two years.
West Covina firefighters take their contract dispute with City Hall to the street by picketing at the corner of Vincent Avenue and Lakes Drive, then marching to the Civic Center bringing attention to their contract dispute with city officials Nov. 30, 2016. The firefighters’ union has been without a contract for more than two years. FILE PHOTO
West Covina firefighters take their contract dispute with City Hall to the street by picketing at the corner of Vincent Avenue and Lakes Drive, then marching to the Civic Center bringing attention to their contract dispute with city officials Nov. 30, 2016. The firefighters’ union has been without a contract for more than two years.
West Covina firefighters take their contract dispute with City Hall to the street by picketing at the corner of Vincent Avenue and Lakes Drive, then marching to the Civic Center bringing attention to their contract dispute with city officials Nov. 30, 2016. The firefighters’ union has been without a contract for more than two years. FILE PHOTO

The West Covina Firefighters Association is accusing the city’s fire chief of retaliating against members of the union for exercising their rights to collective bargaining and free speech while protecting another employee accused of harassment.

In a claim filed against the city and Chief Larry Whithorn this week, the association — which represents 61 employees of the Fire Department — alleges the chief has threatened to change union members’ work schedules and duties and demoted members of the association for engaging in drawn-out contract negotiations and picketing City Hall throughout those negotiations over the past 2 1/2 years.

For example, Whithorn allegedly threatened one member who was on medical leave with a broken leg, saying his union activity “could impact his ability to return to work,” according to the claim. When his doctor cleared him to work, the firefighter was told that the city had created a new “fitness for duty” requirement he would need to fulfill first.

Another member was placed on administrative leave in September 2016 for using a profane word, according to the complaint.

“During several conversations in the past few months, Whithorn has told people that he is angry with the association and claimants for their protected activity and intends on watching all association members closely and planned to aggressively respond to any rule violation,” the claim reads.

During the alleged retaliation, Whithorn declined to discipline another Fire Department employee accused of harassing homeless people and making racially insensitive comments to his subordinates.

According to the claim, that employee became known within the department as “the angel of death” captain after he allegedly referred to himself as such in 2014 while accosting a homeless man who had called 911 asking to be taken to the hospital.

The employee is now in the running to be an assistant fire chief, according to Matt Jackson, president of the association.

Whithorn did not respond to requests for comment. He is currently on a leave for a “private, personal” matter, according to City Manager Chris Freeland.

Although the city and the union finally agreed on an updated labor agreement earlier this year after operating more than two years without one, the union and the city are still in dispute over proposed staffing reductions and changes to the department’s deployment structure.

City Attorney Kimberly Hall Barlow believes most of the allegations raised in the claim were investigated, but she could not say what the outcome of those investigations were or if “the angel of death” captain had been disciplined as a result of any investigation, she said.

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Hall Barlow said she didn’t believe the claim was valid and that it was being raised because the union “hasn’t gotten what it wants” in negotiations with the city.

“It’s unfortunate that they’ve elected to go this route,” she said.

Jackson said before filing the claim, he took the union’s concerns to city officials, but nothing was done. In December, the association filed a complaint regarding the alleged retaliation with the California Public Employees Relations Board.

“I wish the city would take it seriously,” Jackson said. “The city has conveniently allowed retaliation to happen, and they’re hiding behind the excuse that we’re filing complaints because of labor negotiations.”

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Stephanie K. Baer

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