A group of New York City ambulance workers who gave media interviews sued the city on Thursday, saying they were punished for talking about their work on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs accused the city of violating their right to speak about their working conditions at the height of the outbreak. They also claimed their due process rights were violated after the New York City Fire Department allegedly benched the group without fair notice.
Health workers punished for speaking out
Elizabeth Bonilla is one of the paramedics that filed the case. In April, the Associated Press followed her through a grueling 16-hour shift for a story that looked into how first responders were affected by the pandemic. After the story broke, the fire department sent her, as well as two other paramedics, a notice that placed her on “restricted” duty. A worker on restricted status cannot receive overtime or work for other emergency services in the city’s 911 system. The other paramedics in the lawsuit said they were placed on restricted duty.
The plaintiffs also claimed they were placed on restricted status without a chance to be heard, which violated their due process rights under federal and state law. The letters did not say why they were restricted, according to the paramedics.
John Rugen, an EMT and union officer for FDNY EMS Local 2507, was first suspended for 30 days before being placed on restricted status. In the suit, he claims that the department benched him for violating its social media and patient privacy laws without providing any evidence. Rugen, who has stage 4 lung cancer, appeared in an ABC News story, where he shared how the pandemic prevented him from seeing his son for a week.
The fire department declined to comment on the case, directing all inquiries to New York City’s law department. In an email, a spokesperson for the law department said that while the fire department respects the rights of its employees, “those rights must be carefully balanced to respect the privacy rights granted under the law to patients receiving emergency medical care.” When pressed further, the spokesperson declined to answer. (Related: Health care workers are dying from coronavirus, but official numbers are difficult to nail down.)
Accusations are “absolute hogwash”
Responding to allegations that the health workers violated privacy rights, Terry Meginnis, one of the lawyers representing the workers, dismissed these as “absolute hogwash.” In addition, he said the punishments were made to stop other workers from letting the public know of the actual situation in the streets.
“It would behoove the fire department to tell these individuals exactly what they think they did wrong and give them a chance to say something because these folks are the heroes of the city, “Meginniss added. “These are the people who go out and treat people, and they have been living through incredibly difficult times.”
The paramedics are all union members of FDNY EMS Local 2507, which granted media interviews in an effort to promote the work of paramedics and EMTs during the height of the pandemic.
According to union president Oren Barzilay, the problem started when the fire department got wind of the campaign.
“EMS is known to be the stepchild of the fire department,” he added. “We always get the crumbs of the pie, so when we decided to do this campaign on our own, this is when it became a problem.”
Barzilay, who is also among the plaintiffs, argued that none of the workers violated patient privacy laws in their interviews and that the department is punishing the workers for speaking out on the lack of personal protective equipment for front-line responders. In a statement, he stressed how it was the right of the workers to tell the public of the risks the virus poses to everyone’s health and safety.
“That the FDNY responded with vengeance by retaliating against our members for exercising their First Amendment rights is an absolute outrage.”
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