October 22, 2010 in City

Spokane firefighter gets another last chance

By The Spokesman-Review

A Spokane firefighter who was caught skipping work in 2007 to teach high school will get a second “last chance” and has served a 60-day suspension after violating sick leave policy earlier this year.

The Spokane Civil Service Commission this week voted unanimously to uphold the latest disciplinary action for firefighter James Frederick. He had appealed the new punishment, arguing that mental impairment led him to violate sick leave policy earlier this year.

“The current medical research shows that chronic back pain, diabetes and steroid treatment all cause cognitive problems,” Frederick wrote in a letter to the commission. “I have had all three of these conditions this past year.”

In 2007, Frederick was given his first “Last Chance Agreement” after he was found to be skipping work. According to a city investigation, Frederick was caught after calling in sick on Oct. 10, 2007; that same day, he called a fire station, and the caller ID said Frederick was at Rogers High School.

City officials checked with Spokane Public Schools and discovered that Frederick was substitute teaching that day. They later found that Frederick had taught school as many as 14 times from 2005 through 2007 after calling in sick at the Fire Department.

The city responded by suspending Frederick for 60 days without pay, demoting him from fire equipment operator to firefighter and creating a Last Chance Agreement, which was signed by Frederick and city and union leaders in March 2008. The deal was labeled as “Mr. Frederick’s last opportunity to retain his employment.”

But when the department determined Frederick was violating sick leave again this year, the city opted to give Frederick a second “Last Chance Agreement” because one portion of the first Last Chance Agreement states that further violations would result in discipline “up to termination.”

“It did not specifically say any further violations ‘will’ result in termination; it said, I believe, ‘may’ result in termination,” Fire Chief Bobby Williams told the commission in a hearing on Tuesday. “Because of that technicality, he was given the benefit of the doubt.”

Williams said the new deal is the first time that he can recall an employee getting a second Last Chance Agreement in his 22 years as chief.

“We thought we could sustain a challenge if we needed to, but we were not going to take that risk,” Williams said.

Frederick, who had regained his fire equipment officer title after scoring high enough in a test, will again be demoted to firefighter. He already served his 60-day suspension without pay and is currently on light duty.

City records say Frederick injured his back while fighting a fire in 2009. Frederick, who was paid nearly $83,000 as a fire equipment officer in 2009, said continued problems related to that injury caused him to continue missing work in 2010.

The most recent investigation into sick-leave violations was prompted by the failure to file correct paperwork.

“You stated that you thought the doctor was going to take care of the paperwork,” said a letter from City Administrator Ted Danek that explained the new investigation. “You did not dispute the fact that you were off 10 shifts during 2010 without providing the required documentation.”

In testimony in front of the commission Frederick denied some allegations, saying he always responded to requests for information from staff, and admitted others. He argued that undiagnosed diabetes and other health complications prevented him from following through.

“I’m not contesting that I missed some phone calls during the month of April,” Frederick said. “The only reason I didn’t make those calls was that it was never in my mind to make those calls. My brain wasn’t working properly.”

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