On September 1, 2015, a total of 174 current and former firefighters filed a lawsuit against the City of New Haven (the “City”) seeking, among other things, back pay, liquidated damages, interest and attorney’s fees. The threshold claim in the lawsuit is that the City of New Haven failed to accurately calculate and pay the firefighters for overtime wages in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The case has already garnered wide spread media attention in Connecticut, and you can rest assured that local municipalities and unions representing firefighters are monitoring the lawsuit closely.
The lynchpin of the firefighters’ claims is that, in calculating the firefighters’ regular rate of pay, the City failed to incorporate additional compensation that the City provides to firefighters, including, but not limited to, certification pay, education incentive pay, acting pay, haz-mat pay and longevity pay. The alleged failure to include this additional compensation is critical because FLSA requires that the “regular rate” of pay must include “all remuneration for employment.” 29 U.S.C. Section 207(e).
The impetus and driving force behind the lawsuit appears to be Capt. James Cottage, President of New Haven Fire Fighters Local 825. A recent article in the New Haven Register reports that Capt. Cottage “stumbled upon” the alleged discrepancy in the manner that the City calculated overtime wages while filing a grievance in early 2014, and that he then spoke with then-Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden, the labor director and the comptroller. According to Capt. Cottage’s quote in the article, “[t]his was a problem during the [former Mayor John] DeStefano administration and the [Mayor Toni] Harp administration has allowed it to continue.” According to Cottage, he “pleaded and asked them to straighten out this matter before the fiscal year 2014-15” but “[t]hat didn’t happen.” The article further quotes Capt. Cottage as saying that “[t]his could have all been avoided if everybody could’ve played nice in the sandbox.”
The stakes could be costly for the City because the firefighters are alleging that the omissions by the City were done in a willful, unreasonable and bad faith manner, entitling them to additional damages. Acting Corporation Counsel John Rose has publicly acknowledged the lawsuit, but has maintained the Corporation Counsel’s policy of not commenting on pending litigation. The lawsuit has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Meyer.
The lawsuit serves as a reminder to municipalities about the critical nature of properly calculating overtime compensation, especially under Section 7(k) of FLSA. In short, fully complying with FLSA’s special provisions and rules for Fire Protection and Law Enforcement Employees can be challenging. One misstep could be costly. Municipalities should therefore be sure to consult and rely on counsel to ensure compliance with FLSA.