The Atlantic City firefighters union, saying the city has shown “blatant disregard” for the health and safety of its members, has sued the city and state after six firefighters tested positive last week for the coronavirus, potentially exposing 65 firefighters to the pandemic.
The union’s complaint, filed Friday in Superior Court, alleges that the department’s policy of directing firefighters to return to work after they were exposed to infected coworkers, but tested negative themselves for COVID-19, risks spreading the coronavirus among firefighters, their families and the public. It asked the department to require exposed firefighters to self-quarantine for 14 days on paid leave regardless of the outcome of tests.
Fire Fighters Local 198 asked for an injunction to force the city to professionally disinfect each station between shifts, and to postpone the training of new hires scheduled for this week. One of the firefighters who tested positive was scheduled to be an instructor for the new hires, and was in close contact with other trainers, the suit says.
"The spread of COVID-19 among firefighters also places their family members and housemates at risk, the suit says. “The nature of firefighters' work requires them to come into close contact with the general public, including the elderly (potentially in nursing homes), high-risk individuals, and those who will need medical attention and/or hospitalization after suffering serious injuries.”
The lawsuit names the city, the state, and the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs’ Division of Local Government Services and its director, Melanie Walker, which are responsible for oversight of the city under the 2016 Municipal Recovery and Stabilization Act.
Lisa M. Ryan, a spokesperson for the Department of Community Affairs, said in an email Sunday that firefighters who are exposed to somebody who has tested positive are immediately isolated until they can be tested. The firefighters are given a rapid COVID-19 test, which returns a result in about an hour.
Firefighters who receive negative results and are asymptomatic are put back on the work schedule, she said, citing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that pertain to critical infrastructure workers returning to work following exposure to COVID-19.
Since the onset of the pandemic, she said, the Fire Department has adopted safety protocols that include taking temperature readings of on-duty firefighters twice a day, social distancing and wearing masks in fire stations, eating in shifts, keeping sleeping bunks at least six feet apart, wearing full protective equipment on fire calls, doing daily cleaning regimens of equipment and fire stations, and conducting a heavy cleaning at least once a week.
The firefighters' lawsuit says the city’s “ineffective approach” of directing firefighters who test negative to return to work resulted in the “further spread” of COVID-19. It said the policy was contrary to the advice of the New Jersey Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advise individuals to self-quarantine for two weeks after exposure to a person who tests positive.
The union was informed on Tuesday that three firefighters had tested positive, and was told on Thursday that three more were infected, according to the suit.
The individuals who tested positive work at three of the city’s six fire stations. Firefighters live and work in close proximity to each other during their 24-hour shifts — between eight and 13 firefighters work at each station.
The firefighters say their workplace is akin to a home, and health guidelines direct family members who live with somebody who tests positive to self-quarantine for 14 days. “It is irrelevant whether the individual is asymptomatic and/or tests negative for COVID-19,” the lawsuit said.
The suit says the city’s practice is a violation of due process and equal protection clauses of the state constitution, a violation of the Municipal Recovery and Stabilization Act and a breach of the union contract. The lawsuit was filed by the O’Brien, Belland & Bushinsky LLC law firm of Moorestown.