WILKES-BARRE - On Friday afternoon, George Lehman and Jim Zeremba were back in city fire headquarters, nine weeks after they had worked their last shift for the department.
"It was a long nine weeks," Lehman said. "I'm just very happy to be back."
Lehman and Zeremba were two of the 11 firefighters furloughed from Dec. 1 until Friday. Their first shift saw them responding to a car alarm, a bush on fire, a water main break and a lift assist. With snow moving in, they prepared the department's equipment for a coming storm.
The department had been working with 11 fewer firefighter/EMTs since city administration cut back in response to a budget deficit at the end of the year. Greg Freitas, vice president of the Wilkes-Barre Firefighters Association, said eight retirements last year and this year have contributed to lower staffing levels.
For the laid-off firefighters, life during the furlough meant collecting unemployment instead of paychecks, losing health care for themselves and their families at the end of the year and waiting for the call they hoped would bring them back to work.
Not knowing how long the furloughs would last, Zeremba said he applied for jobs as far away as Virginia. He was going through a long testing and approval process for a new position when he learned the city would rehire the laid-off firefighters.
Freitas was in the middle of a call to another firefighter, telling him he didn't know when the furlough would end when Mayor Tom Leighton called to tell him the layoffs were over. The news was a relief, Lehman said.
"I was shocked," Zeremba said.
During the furlough, messages of support from other fire departments came into Wilkes-Barre, and workers from several Pennsylvania departments rallied with city firefighters to protest the layoffs.
The city and the department negotiated a proposal that would have required concessions from the city's four unions to keep fire employment at its current levels through spring 2014, but that didn't result in a deal, city spokesman Drew McLaughlin said.
"The mayor is glad to have them back too," McLaughlin said. "We said as soon as we can afford to bring them back, we would. We worked with city council to bring them back."
An attempt to reach Fire Chief Jay Delaney was unsuccessful.