FDNY EMT paid $400K for staying home for 4 years in bias suit wants promotion to firefighter
Recently demoted Chief Michael Gala told Arnaldo Rodriguez not to return to the academy
By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — An FDNY EMT who earned $400,000 sitting at home for four years amid a feud with the department after joining a class-action lawsuit aimed at ending discrimination in the city’s firefighting ranks now hopes to retire, the Daily News has learned.
But before that happens, Emergency Medical Technician Arnaldo Rodriguez wants to be made a firefighter, which he was on his way to becoming in 2013 before an FDNY chief recently demoted by Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh ordered him to stay home and not return until contacted.
Rodriguez’s attorney is arguing he’s entitled to $1.5 million in backpay for wages he missed out on due to not being a firefighter over the last two decades.
Rodriguez, now 47, first applied to be an FDNY firefighter in 1999 but was denied. Still wanting a career as a first responder, he became an EMT the next year and spent more than a decade responding to emergency medical calls in Brooklyn, according to court papers.
While he was working as an EMT, Rodriguez became a plaintiff in the Vulcan Society lawsuit in which Black and minority firefighter candidates claim they were discriminated against because of their race.
Rodriguez wasn’t involved in the case when it first began in 2007 — but by claiming to have an interest in its outcome he was allowed later to join the case on the Vulcans’ side.
In 2013, after the city reached a settlement in the case, Rodriguez got a letter from the Justice Department saying he could re-apply to become a firefighter, court papers say. He was later admitted to the Fire Academy.
But after four days in the training program Rodriguez was brought into FDNY Chief Michael Gala’s office and told not to return to the academy.
Gala and the department accused him of lying on his medical records by failing to reveal an off-duty injury that left him on light duty for a brief time earlier in his career. He was also accused of putting false information in his application, the court papers say.
When Rodriguez asked where he would be sent next he was simply told, “We’ll call you — don’t call us,” his lawyer, Peter Gleason, told The News.
Gala said via his lawyer that in ordering Rodriguez to stay home, he was relaying instructions from officials in the department’s Bureau of Investigations and Trials.
“It was total humiliation,” Gleason said of his client’s treatment. “They were trying to break his will as a man.”
Gala opposed the Vulcans’ efforts to diversify the FDNY in letters published in The Chief-Leader, a newspaper aimed at the city’s civil service workers. He later settled a lawsuit against the city that claimed his career was stalled because of the letters. As part of the settlement, the city paid him $101,000 and promoted him to assistant chief of the department.
Gala is now fighting for his job after Kavanagh demoted him and two other assistant chiefs in February.
According to court documents, Rodriguez spent four years — from August 2013 to September 2017 — at his home in Woodside, Queens, waiting for the call to return to work. During all that time he was on administrative leave and received his full salary and benefits.
“It is unusual for anyone to be on administrative leave for four years,” a 2021 arbitration hearing over Rodriguez’s case noted.
For the first year of his exile Rodriguez was paid as a firefighter, Gleason said. For the last three, he was paid at a lower rate as an EMT.
“Adding benefits, the taxpayers paid in excess of $400,000 for an able-bodied man to sit at home,” Gleason said.
“But it was a double-edged sword,” the lawyer added. “In one respect being despised so much because of his status as a Vulcan litigant was distressing. But on the other hand not being in that atmosphere for four years was refreshing.”
When Rodriguez finally returned to work he was placed on a 60-day unpaid suspension. He was ultimately reinstated as an EMT and currently works for EMS’ Office of Medical Affairs and teaches new employees how to drive ambulances.
Because several EMTs have been punished by the department for speaking to the press about the challenges they faced during the COVID pandemic, Gleason declined The News’ request to talk to Rodriguez. As Gleason spoke to a reporter, Rodriguez sat by quietly.
Local 2507, the EMT union, filed a grievance on Rodriguez’s behalf saying his years-long leave violated its contract with the city and demanding Rodriguez be reinstated to the FDNY as a firefighter since he was in the fire academy when he was sent home. The union says he is thus owed back pay at the higher rate.
There is a large pay gap between firefighters and EMTs, even though both respond to emergency medical calls, a disparity the federal government wants the city to resolve.
Entry-level EMTs are paid a base salary of $39,386, according to city records. Within five years, their pay increases to $59,534. City firefighters start their career with a salary of $43,904 that goes up to $85,292 after five years.
After hearing Rodriguez’s case, city arbitrator Lisa Charles determined in October 2021 that the FDNY wrongfully disciplined Rodriguez and ordered the department to “remove the discipline from his record, rescind the 60-day suspension, pay him for the missed time with interest and make him whole.”
Charles agreed with Rodriguez and Local 2507 that the mistakes Rodriguez wrote down on his fire academy medical forms in 2013 were not intentional and that during the years he was an EMT the Fire Department built up complete records about his health.
At a March 1 Manhattan Supreme Court hearing on Rodriguez’s position with the FDNY, Gleason said Rodriguez “emphatically wants to be restored as a firefighter.”
“When you make someone whole, you put them back in the position they should have been on the date of the incident,” Gleason said during the hearing. “So if that happened, standing here today Arnaldo Rodriguez would be a firefighter with 20 some-odd years.”
As a firefighter, his client should receive around $1.5 million in back pay, Gleason argued.
If the FDNY consents to make Rodriguez a firefighter and offers an agreeable back pay settlement his client would immediately retire, Gleason said. He wouldn’t be eligible to retire as an EMT until 2025.
Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Nicholas Moye denied the city’s motion to dismiss Gleason’s request to become a firefighter and kicked the case back to arbitration to determine Rodriguez’s future with the FDNY.
“I can’t give complete relief that he’s asking for but he’ll live to fight it out another day,” Moye said.
Both the FDNY and the city Law Department declined to comment as the case continues through arbitration.
The FDNY has warmed up to Rodriguez of late and in October on social media promoted an off-duty save he made while running the Chicago Marathon.
Last month Kavanagh demoted Gala and two other FDNY staff chiefs to deputy chiefs for being “bad apples” and not following her mandates, FDNY officials said.
In response, several FDNY chiefs including Chief of Department John “Jack” Hodgens, the highest ranking uniformed firefighter, requested to also be demoted to deputy chief and put back in the field. Gala and the other demoted chiefs are currently suing to get their jobs back.
Gleason is hoping Kavanagh will use her power to make Rodriguez a firefighter, which Gleason believes the class action settlement mandates indicate should happen.
“Arnaldo has had enough of the turmoil emanating from the highest echelons of the FDNY where the commissioner’s office has done nothing to prevent or to resolve this situation,” Gleason said. “This would be a perfunctory decision. If Laura Kavanagh can’t follow a federal court mandate then it appears she has no respect for rules and regulations.”