More pay changes in fire department

Published 10:58 pm Friday, March 21, 2014

The president of Suffolk’s firefighters’ organization says several problems with their pay that have come up in recent weeks could have been caught long ago if the city would put the number of hours they’ve worked on their pay stubs.

The city recently told firefighters they’d been shorting them about $1 per overtime hour for an unknown period of time. The firefighters received checks for the past three years, but that’s as far back as the city is required to go under the statute of limitations.

At the same meeting where firefighters were told about the overtime issue, they also were told the city had been paying them too much holiday pay and will stop doing so, though firefighters won’t be required to pay it back.

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Both issues were caught during a review of the department’s pay policies and practices ordered by Chief Cedric Scott, who started in the job almost a year ago. He met during the course of three days with all of the firefighters to explain the issues.

“We provided as much information as we could,” Scott said. “We’ve tried to explain our pay practices, which includes how the city compensates its employees for holidays.”

Travis Peirce, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2801, contends the city was paying the correct amount of holiday pay to begin with. He said both issues, particularly the overtime shortage, could have been avoided if the city had put the number of hours worked on pay stubs. That way, employees could have done the math themselves years ago and figured out they were being shorted.

“Our paychecks just say regular pay and other pay,” he said. “We’ve been fighting for a long time to get the city to put on there, ‘X amount of hours.’ When we questioned it, they just said, ‘Hey, that’s right, don’t you worry about it.’”

City Chief of Staff Debbie George said earlier this month that stubs would start showing a breakdown of hours worked beginning with the March 30 paycheck.

Both issues came to light after the city accidentally overpaid firefighters in December and then took the difference from their next checks. Peirce said that left some with a zero balance in the second check, but he gave the city credit for bumping up some overtime that would have been on a subsequent check to lessen the hardship.

And to add insult to injury, city leaders signed a new inclement weather policy on March 3 — during a snow and sleet storm — that means firefighters get only time and a half, rather than double time, during inclement weather, Peirce said.

Firefighters have not had a cost of living increase in six years, Peirce added.

“It’s not just one little issue, it’s which straw is going to break the camel’s back,” he said.

Peirce said firefighters know they’re not going to get rich in their career. They go into that line of work because they love it, he said.

“We don’t want to cause waves. We want to help people,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we still have mortgages to pay, power bills to pay, prescriptions to buy.”

But despite the issues, Peirce said, there are many good things about working in the fire department. They appreciate the fact that equipment and infrastructure are kept up to date. The camaraderie among the rank and file is good, he said. And they are given the opportunity to do public service while on duty, such as the “Fill the Boot” campaign for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which raised $30,000 last year.

“We’re grateful the city will let us do it on duty,” Peirce said.