Olen Jones used to spend his days writing summonses as a traffic enforcement agent for the city. 'I'm a single parent raising a teenage daughter,' Jones says. 'And you know how teenagers are; they like to have nice stuff. So I wrote a lot of summonses; I did a lot of overtime.'
But at the end of November, Jones found himself facing the holiday season unemployed. 'I was in the field and I was having a good day, too; nobody had cursed me out or threatened me or anything. When I got back to the station, my commanding officer said, 'Give me your badge and your ID.' Just like that. And I couldn't argue because that was my commanding officer."
Jones and 26 other traffic enforcement agents, whose duties can include directing or, in an emergency, diverting traffic, issuing citations for parking and speeding violations, or towing vehicles, were terminated by the NYPD on November 29, 1999. According to the termination letter, the police department was complying with a directive from the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) to replace provisional employees.
But Jones and some of the terminated agents feel that they were wrongfully terminated and have organized as Concerned Agents of Traffic, to fight their terminations. The goal of Concerned Agentswhich includes 12 to 14 of the original 27 TEAsis not to be rehired by the police department as traffic agents, but to remain city employees and be redeployed to other agencies while retaining seniority.
Jones and several TEAs plan to picket this week in front of the offices of 1182 (one of the Communication Workers of America locals) on Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills.
According to New York State's civil service law, provisional appointments are to be terminated within two months after an "eligible list" is established. The list is compiled once a civil service exam is given and passing scores certified; then provisional employees currently serving in a position are replaced by people from the list.
Most of the TEAs were originally employed by the Department of Homeless Services. When budget cuts threatened layoffs in 1994, the municipal unions made an agreement with the city to redeploy employees to different positions or agencies. The TEAs were redeployed to the Department of Transportation to become traffic enforcement agents (in 1996, TEAs came under the supervision of the NYPD). Although the appointments were provisional, some of the former agents say they were told that once they took the exam, they would become permanent employees.
"We were asked to comply with certain criteria in order to keep the job and make it permanent," says Charles Mills, one of the former agents, "such as going through the probationary period, which we did without any problem. Then they asked us to take a civil service exam, which we did, and I passed. There was a two-month time period after passing the test during which they were supposed to roll us over to permanent employees."
Robert Cassar, president of the Communications Workers of America's Local 1182, says the union has gone to great lengths to investigate the matter. "We did spend quite a bit of time, energy, and local financing making sure nothing was done wrong."
Cassar says there is nothing the union can do because the agents were provisional, and as such, were legally terminated. "Anytime you're provisional, the bottom line is that you're a tentative employee. I think many of these people just didn't understand that . . . even if you've been on the job 20 years, you can be bumped down. We bent over backward to explain to them what happened.
"As much as this local wanted to keep these employees and as much distaste as we had for the way the police department handled it, it is evident that neither the department nor the city violated any regulations or violated anyone's rights."
However, the city did violate a regulation of the state's civil service law which says that provisional appointments are not to continue past nine months, and civil service exams are to be conducted as soon as practicable after provisional appointments are made to adhere to that time limit. Had a civil service exam for traffic enforcement agents been offered years ago, the agents would not have been terminated. They would have had the right to return to the Department of Homeless Services. That was part of the redeployment agreement, which expired in 1998.
Attorney Robert Ligansky, who was consulted by both Local 1182 and former agent Jones, says that under the terms of the civil service law, the former agents have no legal remedies. According to Ligansky, provisional employees do not automatically become permanent, even if they pass the civil service exam for their position.
"Passing the exam doesn't obligate anyone to hire you," he says. "They only have to hire one out of three people on the list. So you could take the test, get the top score, and be ranked number one and you might not get the job. Just as long as they take one out of the top three."
Ligansky says that the city often violates the time limit on provisional employees. "Provisional employees are good for the city because it gives them flexibility. The problem is that a provisional can be in a position a year, two years, or three years, and unless they get a lawyer to push the city to give an exam it doesn't happen. The city doesn't do it on its own."
Unfortunately, according to Ligansky, under state civil service law there is no direct legal action the agents can take despite the fact that they weren't offered an exam within the time limit of the law. "It's really unfair what the police department did, because these people were redeployed and then they were bounced."
The police department would not comment on the fairness of the situation, only on the legality of terminating the agents. Press office spokesperson Lieutenant Stephen Biegel says, "They were replaced by members off the civil service exam list, which was well within our legal rights."
John Talbutt is assistant to the president of Social Service Employees Union Local 371, part of District Council 37, the union that most of the TEAs originally belonged to when they were employed by the Department of Homeless Services. DC 37 is one of the unions that negotiated the redeployment agreement. Talbutt says that he is working with the Office of Labor Relations and DCAS on behalf of the agents. "I think the administration may feel there's an injustice here, and people are trying to remedy it," says Talbutt.
For the Concerned Agents of Traffic, the injustice is not that they were fired, but how they were treated, and that can't be remedied. "Even if they had grounds to terminate people, the way they went about it was wrong," Mills says. "They gave no notice whatsoever. I got a letter on November 29 saying I was terminated as of November 30. How can you fire someone from a job with no advance warning? At least give us time to look for another job.
"A lot of people's families didn't have a Christmas because of this. It's like treating people like less than people. I guess the NYPD doesn't respect us. They think they can do whatever they want with people's lives."
Jones thinks the city is using them as a test. "The city is waiting to see what we are going to do, if we're going to fight for our jobs or if we're going to roll over. If we roll over and let it die, then they can do exactly what they want to and get rid of other people who were redeployed," he says. "We're trying to get a lawyer. But he's going to want to get paid. We're people who are unemployed. We have rent to pay."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.