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Worker's firing faces wider state probe

The state's top labor attorney will investigate the firing of a city forestry worker who alleges he lost his job for speaking to the news media about safety issues.

Ernest Bivins, a maintenance worker in the Forestry Division, became stuck in Cayuga Creek last April 25 while trying to cut up a tree with a chain saw that he said he never had been trained to operate.

He also said he had no safety harness. City firefighters had to rescue him, and he was hospitalized later that day with hypothermia.

He filed a complaint with the state Labor Department claiming he had been terminated as retribution for speaking out about the lack of safety equipment and training.

Soon thereafter, the city reviewed its safety procedures, but maintains Bivins' firing had nothing to do with his public comments.

Edward Perlman, Bivins' attorney, said Doug Shaw, the state labor investigator looking into the case, had told him last September that a recommendation would call for reinstating Bivins with retroactive pay.

Shaw's findings apparently went to the Labor Department's law office.

Wednesday, Jerome Tracy, counsel to the Labor Department, sent a letter to state Assistant Attorney General M. Patricia Smith, asking her to "investigate, and if warranted, bring action against the City of Niagara Falls."

City Administrator Daniel S. Bristol, who fired Bivins, had told the City Council at its Feb. 3 meeting that an article in a local weekly newspaper saying the investigation would go further was a "complete fabrication." He also told the Council the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau was not investigating the case.

But the letter from the Labor Department includes a bureau case number. Bristol and Mayor Vince Anello referred all queries Friday to the city's Law Department.

Corporation Counsel Ronald Anton said the city maintains it fired Bivins two days before his 90-day probationary period would have been over for "completely unrelated work problems, including poor attendance during the probationary period."

State officials were unavailable for comment late Friday.

e-mail: gnorheim@buffnews.com

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