Trending Topics

Mass. mayor appoints herself fire chief as union sues for backpay

Medford firefighters’ union filed a lawsuit to collect backpay after mayor claims firefighters organized a mass sickout

By Susannah Sudborough

MEDFORD, Mass. — The Medford firefighters union has filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Medford over unpaid backpay that was agreed to in their latest collective bargaining agreement.

The lawsuit follows accusations by Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn that the firefighters “orchestrated” a mass call-out at the beginning of February that cost the city around $100,000.

[PREVIOUSLY: Mass. FF union takes legal action to counter mayor’s accusations about sick days]

The lawsuit is also the second legal action IAFF Local 1032 has taken against the city in the last month. On Feb. 20 , the union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the state, accusing city officials of malfeasance on a number of fronts, including the mass call-out charge.

Lungo-Koehn confirmed Wednesday that the backpay is owed and has not been paid, but explained that backpay simply takes a long time to process.

“We have a team that has been working to process 102 calculations and three years of backpay,” she said. “The numbers, until they come back 100% correct — and they’re through like three different systems and multiple people — we don’t issue payment.”

The mayor also accused the union of using legal action as a political tactic.

“They are trying to divert from what really needs to be done, which is an investigation and an organizational review of the department,” she said.

What the lawsuit alleges

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Middlesex Superior Court by Milton-based law firm Barrault and Associates on behalf of the department’s 102 firefighters. It accuses the city of an unpaid wages violation and asks for a declaratory judgement ordering the city to pay the wages immediately.

After over two and a half years of collective bargaining, the city and the union agreed to a new firefighter contract in October 2023, according to the lawsuit. The union ratified the contract the next month, and by the end of the month, Medford City Council voted to fund it.

The contract includes 2% to 3% firefighter wage increases each year going back to July 2021 and a weekend bonus of $1 per hour worked going back to July 2023, according to the lawsuit. It also stipulates that firefighters will receive an “annual hazardous duty payment” going back to 2021 that begins at $2,500 and increases each year, as well as a one-time COVID-19 work compensation payment of $1,000.

The “City” told the union that firefighters should expect to see the backpay in their paychecks in January, according to the lawsuit. But so far, the only payment received has been the COVID-19 compensation. And it was only issued to currently-employed staff.

“The members of Local 1032 deserve to be respected, and that starts with paying them fairly,” IAFF Local 1032 President Walter Buckley said in a statement Tuesday. “ ... When the Mayor plays dumb and wonders why morale is at an all-time low in this department, this should serve as a clear example.”

In mid-January, the union met with the “City” and was told they were just waiting for a signature from the mayor’s chief of staff, so the payments would come soon, the lawsuit alleges. Then, in mid-February, the “City” sent an email saying the municipal payroll software was slow and that the payments would take a few more weeks.

“To date, the Union has not received payment, nor has it been notified of any additional process being made towards those payments described above,” the lawsuit reads.

The union previously alleged that Lungo-Koehn has “a well-documented history of animosity and underhanded attacks upon organized labor.” The mayor took office in 2020.

On Wednesday, Buckley called talks with Lungo-Koehn and her office over the last few months “disheartening” and “frustrating.”

“I have met and spoken with the mayor multiple times over the last week and a half and I want to try and build a positive relationship, but that doesn’t seem to be her top priority,” he said in a statement.

The mayor’s explanation

In an interview with MassLive on Wednesday, Lungo-Koehn denied making such promises, but said it’s possible a different city official made them.

Additionally, the mayor asserts that the delay is normal. It has happened with every other recent union agreement that included payback, as the process is “manual labor intensive,” she explained.

“It goes to my chief of staff. It goes through finance, and it goes through fire clerical,” Lungo-Koehn said. " ... You have people that have been promoted within those three years, so the calculations of every single person takes a great deal of time to work through.”

Even so, Lungo-Koehn claimed the process is in its “final stages.” The Medford Human Resources Department reviewed the numbers on Tuesday, she said, and her chief of staff is set to look over them by the end of the week.

“Fingers crossed it’s going into next week’s payroll, but if my chief of staff finds mistakes, we would need more time,” she said.

©2024 Advance Local Media LLC.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.