[Original publication date: June 25, 2000]
‘Disruptive’ firefighter suspended without pay
The Pinellas Park district chief recommends firing the firefighter, who claims religious discrimination.
By ANNE LINDBERG
St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000
PINELLAS PARK — A firefighter who was twice disciplined for sleeping through alarms and has claimed that his co-workers are biased against his religion has been suspended without pay and asked to explain why he should not be fired.
Barac Wimberly, 28, was suspended without pay Thursday after fire officials said his job performance was substandard and had declined after he had been warned many times that he needed to improve. Wimberly earns $29,382 a year.
“I believe termination is the right course of action,” Pinellas Park district chief Art Winquist, who oversees Wimberly’s shift, wrote in a memo Thursday recommending the firing.
“Although he has attended training classes, firefighter Wimberly has worked unsuccessfully for a number of supervisors and has consistently demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to perform up to expectations,” Winquist wrote.
“Additionally, his performance and conduct are becoming increasingly disruptive to the department.”
Pinellas Park officials will hold a hearing Thursday at 1 p.m. in City Hall, 5141 78th Ave. N, to give Wimberly a chance to defend himself. Sometime after that, City Manager Jerry Mudd will decide the firefighter’s future.
Wimberly, a St. Petersburg resident, did not return a phone message asking for comment.
He did, though, write on the disciplinary form that he felt the improvement plan the city set up for him was “unreasonable and further discriminatory.” He also alleged that the attempted firing is in retaliation for filing a bias complaint against the city.
“I consider the actions reported above as retaliatory and will pursue outside counsel with such in mind,” Wimberly wrote. “It is my firm belief that this end result has been the plan from shortly after my being hired.”
Tom Owens, head of Pinellas Park’s personnel department, denied those allegations.
Mudd “would not tolerate any form of retaliation,” Owens said. “That has not happened in this case.”
In recommending that Wimberly be fired, Winquist went further than the firefighter’s immediate supervisor had requested. The supervisor had asked only that Wimberly be overseen by another officer.
Winquist could not be reached Friday for comment. But fire Chief Ken Cramer said Wimberly’s final evaluation was so bad that Winquist had little choice, especially considering Wimberly’s history.
Wimberly has been told to be more of a team player and has been reprimanded for being late for work.
Last year, he received a written reprimand for sleeping through a fire alarm because he was wearing earplugs to drown out fellow firefighters’ snoring. Soon after, he was reprimanded in writing and suspended for half of a 24-hour shift for leaving medical waste, such as needles and bandages, a blood pressure cuff and other equipment, in someone’s home after a medical call.
Not long after, he slept through another alarm. Fire officials gave him a three-day suspension without pay that Wimberly appealed to Mudd. Mudd partly sided with Wimberly and restored two days’ pay to him.
Last December, he received an evaluation that was “significantly below expectations,” according to Winquist.
Wimberly’s immediate supervisor, Lt. Jerry Lubick, set out a plan that included expectations.
“Regular meetings between (firefighter) Wimberly and myself were to be held during this period to monitor his progress, give advice and make recommendations,” Lubick wrote in a June 4 memo to Winquist.
Before that time period was up, Wimberly filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that he was a victim of religious bias because he is a Jehovah’s Witness.
His charges of religious discrimination include:
Co-workers often asked why Wimberly doesn’t celebrate holidays, such as Christmas. One acting supervisor allegedly asked him why he accepts a Christmas bonus if he doesn’t celebrate the holiday.
“Co-workers have joked about Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on doors, calling them Saturday morning streetwalkers.”
After arguing with one firefighter/paramedic about his religion, the man asked Wimberly why Jehovah’s Witnesses were coming to his door. He also told Wimberly that he disagreed with Jehovah’s Witness’ interpretation of the Bible. Shortly after, the man allegedly began filing complaints against him that could not be substantiated.
He refused to take the fire union oath as written and was accused of “elevating myself above everyone else. I also was accused of trying to get the oath changed.”
He declined to help decorate the fire truck during the winter holidays because of his religious beliefs. An acting supervisor “accused me of using my religion to get out of job duties. He told me to leave my religion at home.”
“I was written up for not being a “team player,’ in part because I did not participate in the holiday activities.” The acting supervisor “was not disciplined for his derogatory views toward my religion.”
“In 1999, I have been written up for sleeping through two alarm tones. Firefighters work in a team environment, and it is the standard practice to wake somebody up if they did not hear the tone. To my knowledge, no other firefighter has been left sleeping at the station.”
“Somebody hard-boiled my eggs that I kept at the station. Someone also wrote “dumb a-‘ on my bag of potato chips.”
“There is a double standard when it comes to enforcing seniority “rights.’ When I was on probation, I was told that probationary employees could not drive the rescue truck. Now, recent hires are allowed to drive the truck. When I attempted to sit in a particular spot on the truck, I was told I could not sit there. When I have attempted to use my seniority powers, I have been told that seniority is not considered.”
Wimberly concluded, “I believe if I were not a Jehovah’s Witness, I would not be subjected to derogatory comments about my religion. I also believe that I am being harassed and subjected to disciplinary action because of my religious beliefs.”
The EEOC is still investigating that complaint.
In the meantime, his six-month evaluation period ended. The news was not good.
“I regret to inform you that (firefighter) Wimberly did not successfully complete his “Performance Improvement Plan,'” Lubick wrote in his memo. “In fact, in some areas, (firefighter) Wimberly has regressed.
“His performance and conduct vary widely from shift to shift, sometimes from morning to evening. At times he performs as expected; more frequently he requires close supervision and strong direction.
“He continues to place blame for conduct and performance on other things.”
Lubick went on to say that Wimberly was hesitant on emergency calls and considered unreliable by his co-workers. Lubick said he seeks out the easiest tasks and complains when he does not get them.
“Barac has stated that I do not see all of the work he does,” Lubick wrote. “However, when I required him to verbally report his daily activities in order to make me aware of his accomplishments, he neglected to report to me even once during the past six months.”
Lubick said he thought Wimberly could improve but asked that he be transferred elsewhere.
“My obligations as a union officer create an unreasonable conflict of interest if Barac’s performance issues remain unchanged,” Lubick wrote.
Lubick is head of the Pinellas Park firefighters union, which would represent Wimberly in any personnel dispute with the city.
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