Home Fire News Firefighters still fighting with city hall over backpay after settling shift pay...

Firefighters still fighting with city hall over backpay after settling shift pay lawsuit

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Source: Morgantown Fire Dept. Facebook

William Dean

The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va.

Since March, 47 Morgantown firefighters have earned about $2, 000 less a year after a study of the city’s personnel rules discovered a pay rule—shift differential pay—was not being enforced correctly.

The Dominion Post asked all seven members of Morgantown City Council if they believed the firefighters deserved that pay cut. While some members of council responded, none of them answered the question. The Dominion Post also asked each member why they had not brought the issue up during a meeting or work session. The full response of each council member is available below.

Morgantown’s shift differential pay rules are written with three 8-hour shifts in mind. Those who start work from 1 p.m.-3 a.m. receive a small hourly bonus. The city’s firefighters start at 8 a.m. and work 24-hour shifts. They are the only city employees to do so. For as long as anyone in the department can remember, firefighters have been paid that extra hourly bonus.

The issue is the latest in a series of legal fights between Morgantown and its fire department.

In June 2019, the fire department filed a lawsuit over improper holiday pay compensation. Fire departments in Charleston, Martinsburg and other cities around West Virginia filed similar suits.

The city corrected the issue after the lawsuit was filed, but the legal battle over the amount of back wages the firefighters are owed is ongoing.

That suit is also one of the reasons firefighters say the shift differential rule adjustment was not the correction of an oversight in rule enforcement but retaliation for rejecting a settlement offer a few weeks before.

There is no specific rule addressing shift pay differential for 24-hour shift employees. The timing also makes it possible to see how some view it as retaliation.

But any change to the personnel rules needs to come from City Manager Kim Haws.

Mayor Ron Dulaney told The Dominion Post the matter was a personnel issue and is the responsibility of Haws, who, as city manager, by the city’s charter, is responsible for the city’s day-to-day operations.

“Council supports City Manager Haws’ initiatives to clarify and enforce existing personnel policies for all employees, to follow-through on completing the city-wide employee compensation study, and to reorganize city operations to achieve greater effectiveness in delivering services to our constituents and taxpayers, ” Dulaney said.

He said the council supports “fair, competitive compensation ” for all its employees and will support that through the budget. If the employee compensation study, which discovered the non-enforcement of the rule, recommends salary adjustments, “then I’m sure that council will be consulted, and we will certainly consider how to identify resources that can be allocated for that purpose.”

Dulaney declined to comment further because of the involvement of attorneys and threat of lawsuits.

Deputy Mayor Rachel Fetty said she could not address the questions directly because of the pending litigation.

“However, very generally, I can say that it is my opinion that City Councilors have a responsibility to their constituents and taxpayers to ensure that every department uses public funds in a way that is transparent and consistent with city policy. It is also our obligation to ensure that employees are treated fairly across departments.”

Fetty also said Haws has a responsibility to make sure the city complies with its budget, which is critical, and the consistent application of payroll and other pay issues is important in that. She also noted the financial impact of COVID-19 had on the city budget, which “prompted a doubling down in our review of our budget and budget related policies.”

Regarding retaliation, Fetty said she’s never seen anyone in city administration act in an unprofessional manner to employees. She said the city has “acted in every known way to support our employees in their service to our community.”

Fetty mentioned city council increased the fire department’s budget during the past four years, including the first increase in the number of firefighters since 1973 with assistance from a federal SAFER grant which has since expired.

Councilwoman Jenny Selin said she supports the personnel shift differential rules being applied correctly.

“City council has shown that it is willing to step up, for instance a few months ago updating the firefighter holiday time-off rules going forward, ” Selin said.

This occurred after the firefighters filed a lawsuit.

Attorney Teresa Toriseva, who represents the International Association of Firefighters Local 313—the Morgantown firefighters’ union—told The Dominion Post the city was aware of the issue for months before the lawsuit was filed.

“We actually engaged in formal mediation pre-suit also, ” Toriseva said.

Councilman Barry Wendell said, “I believe this is within the purview of the City Manager. The legal questions need to be referred to the City Attorney.”

Councilors Bill Kawecki, Deb Bergen and Dave Harshbarger did not respond in time for this report.

Email sent to councilors Councilmember, I am working on a story about the firefighter shift differential pay dispute and city council’s role or lack of role in solving it. My deadline is 4 p.m. on Thursday. The story is set to run this weekend. I would like to include your response and hope you comment.

Based on the wording of the current shift differential rule, it appears the city is correctly enforcing the rules as written. However, given the timing of the rejected settlement offer in the holiday pay lawsuit, and other factors, it is possible to see how some may view it as retaliation.

It is also an issue city council could fix, at least going forward. In fact, during the fire civil service commission hearing, Commissioner Michael Jacks suggested that city council could create a rule addressing shift-differential pay for 24-hour employees—which is only firefighters in Morgantown. He even said the fire civil service commission could suggest a rule, if asked, but that it had not been.

My questions to you are:

Do you believe each firefighter deserves to earn roughly $2, 000 less as a result of the rule, as the city states, now being correctly enforced ? If so, why ? If not, why have you not raised the issue at a council meeting or started working on it in the committee of the whole ?

Jenny Selin’s response Similar to the mayor, as one council member, I am in support of the personnel shift-differential rules being applied correctly by the city manager and his administrative team.

The city is in a period of transition with an examination of personnel rules, and a overall study in progress regarding city pay and so on. As noted, city is applying the current rules as written.

City council has shown that it is willing to step up, for instance a few months ago updating the fire-ighter holiday time off rules going forward.

At this point, with law suits complicating the situation, it is best to administratively work out more complete pay and personnel rules solution for all of the city workers as a system including working with the outside consulting firm (in progress) rather than have council or anyone else micromanage individual rules.

Barry Wendell’s response I believe this is within the purview of the City Manager. The legal questions need to be referred to the City Attorney.

Ron Dulaney’s response This is a personnel issue and as such falls under the purview of the City Manager, who by Charter, is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city. Council supports City Manager Haws’ initiatives to clarify and enforce existing personnel policies for all employees, to follow-through on completing the city-wide employee compensation study, and to reorganize city operations to achieve greater effectiveness in delivering services to our constituents and taxpayers.

Budgeting is where policy intersects with administration on the subject of employee salaries. The current council supports fair, competitive compensation for all of our employees and will certainly support this end through the budgeting process. As has been pointed out many times by the City Manager, enforcement (or past nonenforcement) of the differential pay policy was brought to city administration’s attention as a result of the employee compensation study. If, when completed, that study recommends salary adjustments that affect budget, then I’m sure that Council will be consulted, and we will certainly consider how to identify resources that can be allocated for that purpose.

Unfortunately, the contention over the pay differential is now being fueled by the involvement of attorneys and the threat of lawsuits, so I have no further public comment on this issue at this time.

Thanks for reaching out.

Rachel Fetty’s response I apologize, I cannot address your questions directly as there is litigation pending. However, very generally, I can say that it is my opinion that City Councilors have a responsibility to their constituents and taxpayers to ensure that every department uses public funds in a way that is transparent and consistent with city policy. It is also our obligation to ensure that employees are treated fairly across departments.

It is further my general opinion that the City Manager is required to monitor department budgets to ensure that the city as a whole complies with its budget. Also, it is my opinion that monitoring department budgets is critical and that consistent application of payroll, time sheets, overtime, and payment policies and procedures is a critical component to monitoring both department and city budgets.

I would like to note that COVID-19 and the financial impact of COVID-19 related issues prompted a doubling down in our review of our budget and budget related policies. Employees were asked to furlough or take early retirement. Some City Councilors agreed to continue without pay. MPD Chief Preston retired to avoid cutting his staff. This strain is likely to continue to some degree into the known future and overly-optimistic budgeting is simply a thing of the past.

Regarding the possibility of retaliation on any level, by any person in Council or otherwise, I have never seen anyone in the administration act in an unprofessional manner towards our employees. To the contrary, in the past four years City Council has worked to raise wages, improve consistency across departments, granted reprieves on errors in favor of retirees, raised taxes to ensure increased pension funding and acted in every known way to support our employees in their service to our community.

Regarding the Fire Department’s budget in particular, we increased the budget to accommodate additional firefighters, the first increase in the number of firefighters since 1973. We have further increased the budget to accommodate equipment and training needs.

I urge you to take a look at the past four budgets, particularly the funds allocated to the MFD to review the trends.

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