Firefighters welcome overtime ruling

High court decision means cities must pay back wages

August 30, 2011 

The president of the Lexington firefighters union said Monday that a recent Kentucky Supreme Court decision could be a good sign for Lexington firefighters who have sued the city seeking overtime pay.

The high court ruled Thursday that municipal governments are subject to Kentucky's wage and hour laws and are not immune to suits brought by the Kentucky Labor Cabinet to recoup the money.

Lexington was not directly involved in the case on which the state's high court ruled Thursday. But the city's Professional Firefighters Local 526 filed a similar suit in 2005 to force the city to pay back overtime. That case awaits a ruling by the state Supreme Court.

"Our argument's the same as what the cities used in this case. So we think this decision is a good sign for us. We're encouraged," Chris Bartley, president of the local fighters' union said.

The municipalities went to court to stop the Labor Cabinet from pursuing unpaid overtime after a 2007 Kentucky Court of Appeals decision increased the amount cities would owe. The cities and counties said the Labor Cabinet lacked jurisdiction and, as governmental agencies, they could not be sued.

Before the 2007 decision, the Labor Cabinet gave cities, counties and fire districts a formula for calculating overtime. The 2007 decision changed the rules, and the latest decision opens cities to having to pay, even though they followed the Labor Cabinet's previous guidance.

Kentucky League of Cities chief operating officer Temple Juett said cities across Kentucky could be looking at a bill between $25 million and $32 million in the wake of the ruling if forced to pay back overtime for a five-year period, plus retirement benefits on the money.

"Cities are in a position to go ahead and start calculating their liability under this," Juett said.

In 2007, the Kentucky League of Cities released a report on the overtime issue, citing 41 cities that owed 2,632 firefighters unpaid overtime. The report said the amounts ranged from $87,000 for five years of back pay and benefits in Russellville to $6.6 million for five years of unpaid overtime and benefits in Lexington.

Fayette Circuit Court ruled that Lexington did not have to pay the back overtime. The ruling was affirmed by the Kentucky Court of Appeals. The firefighters' union appealed the decision to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

On Monday, city spokeswoman Susan Straub said of Thursday's decision: "There are many municipalities involved in this suit. I cannot comment because attorneys have not decided whether they want to ask for a hearing before the Supreme Court. They have 20 days from the date the decision was issued to decide."

Kentucky Labor Cabinet general counsel Dave Suetholz said the department has between 15 and 20 cases pending across the state that may now be pursued.

"I think firefighters are feeling a lot more secure after this," Suetholz said.

The Kentucky Labor Cabinet gives cities guidance on setting the rate of firefighter overtime pay. After the 2007 appeals court decision, the Labor Cabinet revised its regulations for calculating overtime pay and pursued the money from the cities on behalf of the underpaid firefighters.

In the wake of that decision, 10 cities, including Winchester, Florence and Glasgow, a fire district and Madison County sued the Labor Cabinet, seeking a ruling that the Labor Cabinet couldn't pursue the overtime because local governments were legally immune from such lawsuits. The high court ruled that the Labor Cabinet may pursue cities and counties for unpaid overtime for firefighters and other municipal employees.

"None of the statutory exemptions from overtime pay liability removes city or county governments from that responsibility," Justice Daniel Venters wrote.

The decision leaves cities in the position of finding money that hadn't been budgeted.

Winchester Mayor Ed Burtner told The Associated Press after Thursday's ruling, "We've got a financial problem and we've got to address it."

"It really falls in the category in my judgment of an unfunded mandate," said Burtner, who estimated a $750,000 debt for five years of unpaid overtime and retirement benefits on the money.

Florence Mayor Diane Whalen, who estimated that her city will have to find $243,000, called the situation "unfortunate," but she said the city will have to find a way to pay the tab.

Whalen said she expects to meet with the city council this week in the effort to find a way to pay the overtime, but she didn't know whether it would mean budget cuts, higher taxes or some combination of the two.

"When you have to spend $243,000 on something that was not budgeted in the beginning, it's going to impact other things," Whalen said.

Glasgow settled for $270,760 before the decision came down. Mayor Rhonda Trautman said the city didn't want to face the prospect of having to scramble for funds.

"We felt like it was in the best interest of the city and the firefighters to move forward," Trautman said.

But other mayors remain angry at being required to pay, even though they followed the guidance from the state. Burtner said he hopes residents of all the affected cities will understand the choices forced on them.

"We acted in good faith on this, and we'll act in good faith now," Burtner said.

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