Ky. EMS years-long labor fight settled
The battle began in 2009 when the formula used to calculate overtime pay was found to violate state laws
By Heather Tomlinson
The Commonwealth Journal
SOMERSET, Ky. — Somerset officials are closing the books on a years-long disagreement between the city and the state labor cabinet over overtime pay and other benefits for firefighters and EMS workers.
Somerset City Council during its Monday meeting went into executive session and soon after emerged ready to offer remaining firefighters — those who have not yet settled out of the more than 60 firefighters and EMS workers affected by the city's ongoing battle with the Kentucky Labor Cabinet — the same settlement numbers they offered their coworkers.
That decision came soon after a hearing in Pulaski Circuit Court between the city and the remaining affected emergency workers. It was during that hearing the parties agreed on a settlement of 72 percent of the unpaid overtime and retirement owed to them.
"This wrapped up everything with the case," said Somerset City Attorney Carrie Wiese.
The city's battle over overtime pay and other benefits with the state began in 2009, when the cabinet said the formula city officials had been using to calculate emergency workers' overtime pay since 2000 was incorrect and violated state wage and hour laws.
The city has contended that they calculated the pay exactly how the labor cabinet instructed them.
Emergency workers require a different schedule than a normal 40-hour work week, which results in some unique pay and benefit calculations on the part of the city.
At the center of Somerset's legal battle with the state was approximately $350,000 in unpaid overtime wages, plus retirement benefits paid to the retirement board, bringing the total to about $500,000.
Somerset had calculated the overtime pay a certain way between the early 1990s and July 2000, but changed the formula after receiving a memo from the labor cabinet in July 1998 that mandated the pay be calculated differently.
Pulaski Circuit Court Judge David A. Tapp, who has been overseeing the case since it was moved to local circuit court, stated in one of his earlier opinions in the case that the city had been using "the method that the Cabinet now argues Somerset should have always used" before following instructions as outlined in the state memo.
The labor cabinet's 2009 findings followed on the heels of a 2007 case in which the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled that the City of Louisville had to pay overtime based on a 40-hour work week, in contrast to previous directions by the Kentucky Department of Labor.
But Somerset and other cities and counties contended the Louisville case did not apply to other entities, and so Somerset requested an administrative hearing.
Wiese said what followed was a "trial of sorts" in which the city and the state offered their arguments. A hearing officer in April ruled that Somerset did not owe close to half a million dollars in unpaid overtime and other benefits to its city firefighters. But the labor cabinet's secretary declined to accept the officer's recommendations and stated that Somerset had, indeed, violated the state's wage and hour laws.
That was when the city requested that the case be moved to circuit court.
When the case moved into Pulaski Circuit Court, Tapp ordered that the city and the cabinet enter into mediation. What resulted was the city's settling with around 50 firefighters, EMS workers and retired employees who were affected by the case.
But a few firefighters — approximately 10 — remained.
"This case has been pending now, these issues for years and years," said Tapp during the July 16 hearing, as captured through a video recording. " ... there is a lot of money at stake.
" ... This has dragged on long enough," added Tapp.
Tapp during the hearing told the parties that " ... short of a settlement, nobody is going to accomplish anything for the next several years."
Wiese said the new settlement is the same as the one offered those firefighters and EMS workers who have already settled, with a few changes to the terms in the settlement.
The settlement contends that Somerset denies any inappropriate wage acts, and the labor cabinet agreed to dismiss its case against the city. That effectively releases the city from claims against it in circuit court and in the court of appeals case involving the wage disagreement.
"The city's not admitting to any liability," said Wiese. "And nobody did anything wrong."
On Monday, Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler thanked the firefighters and Tapp for their work toward finding a resolution.
"We do appreciate Judge Tapp and the firefighters for their cooperation," said Girdler.
Wiese has continued to emphasize that the city's disagreement was never with its own employees, but with the labor cabinet's continued statements that the city was in the wrong — and not the cabinet, which Somerset officials say instructed the city in the incorrect wage calculations.
"Our fight was not with the employees," said Wiese, who noted the council's decision to offer the settlement again was a good one.
"I think they did the right thing and it's time to move on," Wiese added.
(c)2014 the Commonwealth Journal (Somerset, Ky.)
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