Wichita fire investigators file lawsuit for unfair pay

At issue in the complaint is how many hours the investigators have to work before they begin receiving overtime

By Amy Renee Leiker
The Wichita Eagle

WICHITA, Kan. — A lawsuit filed last week in federal court contends the city of Wichita does not pay its fire department investigators fairly for their work.

At issue in the complaint is how many hours the investigators have to work before they begin receiving overtime.

Currently, Wichita Fire Department investigators and firefighters get paid time and a half if they work more than 204 hours in a pay period, which is 27 days long, according to the lawsuit.

But, the lawsuit says, the investigators should start receiving overtime earlier -- after working 165 hours -- because they are uniformed, trained law enforcement officers.

The difference amounts to $390 in lost wages per paycheck for an investigator who makes $20 an hour, said Sean McGivern, an attorney representing the six fire investigators identified as plaintiffs in the case.

They are Branden Arnold, Chris Dugan, Donny Eckerman, Joseph Evans, Mark Reibenspies and David Thissen.

The fire investigators, McGivern said, allege the city is violating federal labor law when it uses the overtime threshold for firefighters rather than the one for law enforcement personnel.

"Under existing regulations, the City is required to pay law enforcement personnel overtime compensation when they work more than 165 hours in a 27-day period," McGivern told The Eagle in an e-mailed statement. "... WFD Fire Investigators are, without a doubt, law enforcement personnel. They are armed. They have the power to arrest. They spend their time investigating fires and performing law enforcement activities. They do not engage in fire suppression activities" like firefighters do.

Jennifer Magana, the city's attorney and director of law, said Wednesday that she had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit. She did not comment on the case.

Wichita Fire Department investigators are paid by the hour, according to the lawsuit.

They regularly are scheduled for and work more than 50 hours per week, it says.

Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, employees are entitled to overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours a seven-day work week. But an exemption allows cities to establish a longer pay period -- up to 28 days -- for firefighters and law enforcement personnel. Wichita has adopted a 27-day pay period for its fire investigators, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit claims the city "knew, or should have known, that its compensation systems for ... fire investigators is unlawful." It seeks compensation for every fire investigator employed by the Wichita Fire Department over the past three years, as well as attorneys fees and other damages.

McGivern said the fire investigators who filed the lawsuit "discovered the problem with their compensation" after researching the subject online and consulting with the International Association of Fire Fighters labor union.

The city paid each of the fire investigators identified as plaintiffs in the lawsuit between $70,700 and $85,000 in 2016, according to The Eagle's salary database. Those figures include overtime pay.

Copyright 2017  The Wichita Eagle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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