by Heather Tomlinson
City officials have extended settlement offers for a few firefighters who have yet to negotiate over unpaid overtime and other benefits.
After a short executive session during Monday’s Somerset City Council meeting — led by Councilor Mike New in an absent Mayor Eddie Girdler’s place — the council voted unanimously to offer several firefighters a similar settlement that several others had taken over the summer as part of the close of the long legal process.
Councilor Tom Eastham made a motion “that we continue the same offer that we made back in the summer and pay the same percentage to the remaining firefighters who have not settled.”
Somerset City Attorney Carrie Wiese individually met with local firefighters and EMS workers to carry out negotiations over the summer. Wiese said a majority of those employees accepted settlement offers with the city, but some have not yet reached an agreement with the city.
The city’s legal battle with the Department of Workplace Standards and Kentucky Labor Cabinet is now before Pulaski Circuit Judge David A. Tapp, more than a year after an administrative hearing officer ruled that Somerset does not owe close to half a million dollars in unpaid overtime and other benefits to its city firefighters.
Wiese said the cabinet’s secretary declined to accept the officer’s ruling, and so the city has asked that a local circuit judge rule on whether there were grounds for the cabinet to reject the administrative officer’s decision. Tapp ordered mediation between the city and cabinet, which resulted in the cabinet stating that it would not seek additional back pay and benefits for those firefighters, EMS workers and retirees who choose to negotiate with the city.
“We’ve never been in a position to do this (negotiate) before,” Wiese said in May.
Somerset was one of a handful of cities and counties across Kentucky involved in the lawsuit against the Department of Workplace Standards and Kentucky Labor Cabinet, which in October of 2009 charged the City of Somerset with violations of Kentucky Revised Statute policy in regards to overtime pay. This 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.
Wiese has emphasized throughout the process that the case was not a fight between the City of Somerset and local firefighters, but rather between the city and a government agency.
“The reason we fought so hard over it is that the labor department themselves told us how to calculate the (overtime pay) and now they tell us we’ve been doing it wrong and ‘Now we want you to pay five or six years back on all these guys’,” said Wiese in an earlier Commonwealth Journal article. “It was frustrating because we were doing what we were told to do by an agency that was supposed to know what they were talking about.”
The lawsuit was filed in Franklin County Circuit Court and ultimately made its way to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which ruled against the cities last year.
At the center of the legal battle is approximately $350,000 in unpaid wages, plus retirement benefits paid to the retirement board, bringing the grand total to about $500,000.
Wiese on Tuesday said Tapp is expected to hand down a decision in the local case within 14 days, but until then, the city is extending its settlement offer to those remaining employees who have yet to negotiate in the case.
Wiese said that, out of more than 60 affected employees, around 10 had yet to settle with the city.
“If more of them want to settle with the city, they can come by,” said Wiese.