Amidst the Christmas lights, carols, and holly, Lt. Mary Kohler of the Local 22 firefighters’ union is fighting a battle that is not so joyous.
Kohler, a former paramedic, has been living on the second floor of City Hall outside Mayor John Street’s office since last Tuesday. Her presence is a vigil on behalf of Local 22, in an attempt to secure more efficient health care and other worker’s rights.
Local 22 complains that they gave up many employment benefits in 1992, when Philadelphia was in bad financial straits. Now the city is prospering, they claim, and it’s time to return rights to the workers.
The union and the city operate under a policy of binding arbitration. Under this system, contract negotiations are determined by an independent third party.
In this case, the arbitrator has decided that Local 22 should be allowed to receive wages and benefits at the levels they were at in 1992. The Street administration feels this would be too expensive for the city. The city appealed the decision, saying that they “need to do this to protect the citizens of the city on management prerogatives and to protect our finances.”
“The administration is wrong,” Marc Bofinger of Engine 55 said. “We were where we should be. What we had, especially in health care, was what we wanted.”
Kohler is also fighting to keep her job. She has Hepatitis C, a disease that is spread through blood-to-blood contact, and poses a threat to paramedics and various other health care workers.
“I am unable to work because of the effects of the disease,” Kohler said. “I’ve suffered from severe vomiting and diarrhea at the same time. I get blurred vision from the medication, which makes it difficult to perform the duties of my job.”
Other symptoms of the disease include chronic fatigue, severe joint pain, fever, chills and extreme weight loss.
Philadelphia firefighters who become infected with Hepatitis C are not granted workers’ compensation unless they can prove that the disease was inflicted on the job.
Kohler’s sick time has run out. Under the current city contract, once fire employees run out of sick time, their positions with the fire company are terminated. City Council has hired an attorney to work in conjunction with Local 22 in their fight against the Street administration’s appeal. The International Association of Fire Fighters has also publicly supported the efforts of the union.
Meanwhile, Mary Kohler’s protest continues. Her mission is somewhat brightened by the presence of gifts and supporters.
“People in the medical field should be supported,” said Francis Dolan, a physician’s assistant student at Philadelphia University, who came to support Kohler, “It’s sad to see people putting themselves at risk for the sake of society, and then not be supported by the administration.”
In response to Mayor Street’s refusal to withdraw the appeal, Kohler said, “As long as he holds out, I’ll hold out.”