ATLANTIC CITY — A spokeswoman for the State of New Jersey says it will continue using private investigators to spy on Atlantic City firefighters who are on medical leave or who called out sick.
The private investigator has so far cost the city between $16,000 and $17,000, said Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Community Affairs, which assumed broad authority over the city under a state takeover that went into effect in November, 2016.
The firefighters' union, Local 198 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, charged earlier this month in court papers that private investigators were tracking firefighters at their homes, and that the state was also requiring the lone battalion chief on duty to conduct sick checks, often miles out of Atlantic City.
The practice was revealed when firefighters noticed the investigator's car parked at length outside their homes and called police, who ran a check on the tags, union officials told the Inquirer and Daily News last week.
Ryan said Monday that the private investigator was retained after the city and state learned that "there was a threatened abuse of sick leave," and said the practice would continue.
"The city will continue to use outside investigators to protect the city from sick leave abuse and the negative impact this abuse has on the city's finances," Ryan said in a statement. Mayor Don Guardian said last week he was not told of the state's decision to hire the private investigators.
In addition to monitoring individuals the state says were threatening to abuse sick leave, the city and state subsequently learned that the Fire Department was not conducting required compliance checks, Ryan said. The investigator was then used to monitor firefighters "who are absent from duty due to illness."
"The city's use of outside investigators is working," Ryan said. "While we cannot provide specific names or specific incident details due to privacy considerations, we will note that certain individuals who called out sick were found not to be and/or left their home or place of convalescence without requesting prior permission of their department as is required by operational procedures. For example, one employee was found to be living out of state while calling in sick."
John Varallo Jr., president of the local union, said the union has no issue complying with sick checks, but called the state's tactics a "waste of taxpayer dollars, just like this law firm has been a waste of taxpayer dollars." He was referring to the Chiesa, Shahinian, Giantomasi law firm designated by Gov. Christie to run Atlantic City for the state, its partners billing $350 and $400 an hour. The law firm has billed the state more than $3 million in little over a year for its services.
Varallo said he was not aware or informed of any threat by firefighters to abuse sick time, and blamed the state for leaving the department too short-handed to safely handle the sick time compliance in house. The union is fighting the state in court over a threatened 11.3 percent pay cut that a judge has temporarily blocked.
"The reason the policy wasn't being enforced is because we were so depleted in manpower," he said. "We don't have any information about who they're picking [to surveil] and how far they're traveling."
He said he was only aware of one firefighter who was spotted going to CVS to pick up medicine who was caught not at home during sick time, as the policy requires. "We have no problem with complying with sick checks," he said. "These guys show up every day, prepared. The state got caught with their pants down. They want to put more pressure on us, trying every angle. Now it's private investigators. They operate like this is corporate America."