Va. firefighters, EMTs paid too much for holiday work

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The Virginian-Pilot

SUFFOLK, Va. — City firefighters and emergency medical technicians who work holidays will start seeing smaller paychecks later this year.

Fire Chief Cedric Scott informed department members in meetings last week that the city has been overpaying many of them — by thousands of dollars a year, in some cases.

The city was erroneously giving them an extra eight hours of regular pay for each holiday worked, Chief of Staff Debbie George said.

It’s unclear when the city started miscalculating the holiday pay, but George put the total cost of the overpayments at about $336,000 per year for the past three years. She said about 110 firefighters and EMTs benefited from the error each holiday.

George said the city is not asking them to repay the money for fear of creating an “undue hardship.” She added, however, that it would be fiscally irresponsible for the city to continue overpaying them.

Travis Peirce, president of the firefighters’ union and a 12-year veteran of the department, said the city acted unilaterally, without input from his membership. He said the union is considering legal action.

“They say, ‘Well, this is how we pay all of the other employees.’ Well, we’re not like every other employee,” he said, noting that firefighters work 53 hours a week on average without overtime.

Firefighters in Suffolk work one 24-hour shift about every three days.

“This doesn’t seem fair,” Peirce said, arguing that the adjustment will serve as a de facto pay cut. “How can they just change this after all these years?”

Many firefighters and EMTs do not understand how they were being overpaid on holidays – even after meeting with Scott and George.

Peirce and several other firefighters said they believe that the problem involved how much time-and-a-half pay they were receiving when their shifts landed on holidays and that the city is now capping the time-and-a-half at eight hours per holiday.

George said Peirce is incorrect. She said firefighters eligible for overtime pay always have received only eight hours of time-and-a-half for working holidays. The problem, she said, was that payroll personnel also were paying them an extra eight hours of regular pay.

Under the new system, those firefighters who work holidays will receive their regular salaries plus eight hours of time-and-a-half, George said.

Pay stubs starting March 30 will include a more detailed breakdown of hours worked to prevent further misunderstandings, George said.

Firefighters in Portsmouth and Chesapeake do not receive extra wages for working holidays, department representatives said. Firefighters in Virginia Beach receive time-and-a-half for every hour they work on a holiday, on top of their normal salaries.

The holiday pay error was one of two problems the city discovered in December after Scott – who was sworn in last April – ordered a review of the department’s payroll system. It also learned that the department had been underpaying firefighters and EMTs when they worked overtime by about $1 an hour.

George said she didn’t know when the overtime problem began. She said city staff members looked through three years of time sheets by hand and determined that more than 240 current and former firefighters were underpaid for overtime. The city issued makeup checks averaging about $950.

George said the city went back three years because that is all the law requires; the city can’t be held legally accountable for shortchanging the firefighters before 2011.

“The city is paying what it is required to pay,” she said.

Peirce said he appreciated the chief meeting with firefighters last week to discuss the issue. At the same time, he said, there were so many high-ranking officers in attendance that some of his members were reluctant to speak freely.

“Morale sucks right now. People are frustrated,” Peirce said.

He noted that City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn and other top city administrators received larger raises in the past 20 months than many rank-and-file firefighters. A salary database maintained by The Virginian-Pilot shows Cuffee-Glenn’s base salary has increased more than 15 percent since July 2012, while several firefighters’ salaries have risen less than 5 percent.

“They aren’t leaving in droves yet, but they are starting to look,” Peirce said. “I’m looking.”

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