A black fire fighter in Kansas City, Kan., who has been suspended without pay since 2016 is suing the city’s fire department, the Unified Government and the fire fighters’ union for retaliation and racial discrimination.
Jyan Harris, a KCK Fire Department employee since 2004, claims he has been subjected to repeated harassment from leadership within the department since trying to recover from two on-the-job injuries that left him with lasting pain and physical effects.
Harris, who has been suspended without pay pending termination since Sept. 28, 2016, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Monday after the Justice Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gave Harris a notice of the right to sue the UG and the fire department.
He also accuses the International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 64, the union that represents KCK fire fighters, of representing his complaints against the fire department and UG differently than white fire fighters with severe disciplinary issues.
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“In addition to the lawsuit, Mr. Harris is going through the established grievance procedure with the Unified Government,” UG spokesman Mike Taylor said in an email. “Out of respect for that process, it is inappropriate for the Unified Government to comment at this time.”
The union and the KCK Fire Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Harris took his concerns about his treatment by fire department and UG personnel to former KCK Mayor Mark Holland while he was still in office, who then took Harris’ complaints up the chain of command.
“His only recourse was to file a lawsuit,” Holland told The Star on Tuesday. “Clearly, he’s not part of the good old boy system...If he were part of the good old boy system, they would make this whole thing go away. I think he has a legitimate grievance.”
Holland sought reform of the KCK Fire Department during his time as mayor, particularly as it related to a practice known as shift trading. Shift trading is a common practice in fire departments, but Holland said the KCK Fire Department abused it to such a degree that employees were paid a combined $920,000 for shifts they never worked in 2017.
Harris’ lawsuit suggests that the UG used shift trading as a pretext to suspend him.
“What he was accused of is not a violation in light of the fact that it is permissible,” said Alexander Edelman, a lawyer representing Harris.
Harris in 2013 suffered an on-the-job back injury when he was hit by a car, according to his lawsuit.
Harris claims that Kevin Shirley, then the deputy chief of the KCK Fire Department, continually asked Harris when he would return to work from injured leave, including making a trip to Harris’ doctor and asking to inspect Harris’ medical records.
Harris returned to work about seven months later. Harris claims he was then informed that all his accrued paid time off, including vacation and sick days, was used up while he recovered from his injury.
Harris’ lawsuit says using sick days during injury leave is against IAFF Local No. 64 policies and that white fire fighters on injury leave don’t use sick days.
The lawsuit said that Harris was subjected to harassing behavior by his supervisor after he returned from injury leave and was transferred to a different fire station. Harris reported the behavior to UG human resources.
On June 27, 2016, Harris injured his shoulder while on duty and remained off work until Aug. 9, 2016. Harris claims fire department personnel made it a practice of calling his doctor to ask about his injury until his doctor asked that the calls stop.
Harris met with UG Administrator Doug Bach in 2016 to discuss Harris’ report about harassment by his supervisor. Harris told Bach in that meeting that he believed that his race was a factor in the treatment he received from his supervisor.
Harris later in 2016 had a meeting with a UG human resources director, an IAFF manager and a KCK fire department deputy chief. Harris during that meeting was accused of being paid for four days of work not owed to him because he had instead worked at a UG parks and recreation summer camp.
Harris, according to his lawsuit, said any discrepancy in his work schedule would have occurred due to shift trading and asked to see documentation reflecting the days he worked, but was not given that information.
On Sept. 28, 2016, Harris was placed on unpaid suspension. He was told the suspension was because he was paid for shifts he did not work, which Harris denied.
Harris’ lawsuit said that the KCK Fire Department and the fire fighters’ union supports shift trading. It became an issue during last year’s mayoral issue when fire fighters took exception to Holland’s examination of suspected abuses of shift trading and other practices within the department.
Holland lost his re-election bid to current KCK Mayor David Alvey. In Holland’s final UG meeting, he released findings from a payroll analysis that showed several fire fighters were paid for shifts they did not work in 2017 due to fire fighters trading shifts off and not reciprocating.
Holland said the practice resulted in safety and liability issues for the UG because some fire fighters ended up working too many shifts or worked some shifts out of rank.
The KCK Fire Department and IAFF 64 have disputed Holland’s claims and say shift trading is an accepted practice in fire departments.
“The only reason (or reasons) Plaintiff alone is being punished for a practice that is widely supported by Defendants is because of his race, his disability, and/or his opposition to discrimination he has already suffered,” Harris’ lawsuit says.
That’s a claim that Holland agreed with.
“You have 275 fire fighters who were paid not to work last year and they’re writing Mr. Harris up for allegedly being paid not to work?” Holland said. “What it looks like to me is they put everybody at risk and they disciplined the folks who are not in the club. I think it’s outrageous.”
Harris seeks an unspecified amount in back pay, lost benefits, front pay, punitive damages and attorney’s fees.