W.Va. city, firefighters headed back to court over backpay dispute

Union attorney: Morgantown firefighters are owed more than the $1.7 million settlement offer proposed by the city

William Dean
The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Morgantown and its firefighters are headed back to court after another failed attempt at resolving a backpay issue through mediation.

The suit was filed in June 2019 and at a pre-trial hearing in June 2021, Monongalia County Circuit Court Judges told Morgantown and the members of the International Association of Firefighters Local 313, which represents the firefighters of the Morgantown Fire Department, to try mediation one more time.

A mediation attempt was scheduled for Aug. 5.

On Aug. 10, IAFF Local 313's attorney Teresa Toriseva, announced the attempt failed. It's unclear how far apart the two sides are. In April, the firefighters rejected a $1.7 million settlement offer, which Toriseva said was about half of what was owed. At the time, the firefighters were willing to settle for just under $2 million.

On Wednesday, Toriseva told The Dominion Post Morgantown was still offering $1.7 million while firefighters sought $1.95 million.

"After 2.5 years of litigation, four failed mediation dates using three separate professional mediators, all at great expense to Morgantown taxpayers, the city chooses to continue to litigate with its firefighters rather than pay them when it's clear the city was paying firefighters wrong, " Toriseva said. "The city has been underpaying their professional firefighters for decades. The law only allows five years of that backpay to be recovered. But instead of paying what is owed, the city continues to pursue legal theories which have been rejected by other courts and major West Virginia cities."

After the lawsuit was filed, Morgantown doubled the paid holiday leave for firefighters to 24 hours, which complies with the law, Toriseva said.

The law requires firefighters be compensated with 1.5 times their pay, or equal time off for hours worked for holidays. Firefighters in the MFD work 24-hour shifts and are the only city employees to do so.

Other cities in West Virginia have managed to solve this issue without litigation, Toriseva said. Charleston, which employs a quarter of the state's firefighters, fixed the problems without litigation. In Berkeley County, a judge ruled in favor of firefighters.

"Other cities, including Fairmont and Clarksburg, do this correctly without a litigation war, " Toriseva said.

She said the city's legal battle against its firefighters to prevent them from being paid what is owed fails the public interest.

"One of the first steps toward a safe city is having a well-staffed fire department. Citizen safety depends on it, " Toriseva said. "Treating firefighters with dignity and respect is key to keeping experienced firefighters and treating new ones."

In the June hearing, Gaujot said the case was complex ; he's not sure how he would rule and he may wait for a supreme court ruling. He added both sides are taking a risk if they go to trial, and he really believed mediation was the way forward.

As previously reported, the two sides are essentially at a standstill over 8 hours. Morgantown's firefighters work 24-hour shifts from 8 a.m. to 8 a.m. The city wants to reimburse firefighters for what they actually work on a holiday—either 8 hours or 16 hours—while the firefighters believe they should get an entire day of compensation or 36 hours of pay—time and a half.

At the June hearing, Gaujot asked if a firefighter's regularly scheduled day off was on Monday for West Virginia Day, what each side would compensate that employee for; according to Josh Miller, an attorney for the firefighters, 24 hours time off, or 36 hours of pay. According to Morgantown's attorney Ryan Simonton, the answer is 16 hours, which is the maximum a firefighter could work on any given holiday.

If the two sides can't figure it out, "we'll argue this some more, and I'll make a decision, " Gaujot said at the time.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for mid-September.

Morgantown does not comment on pending litigation, the city's communication director said.


(c)2021 The Dominion Post (Morgantown, W.Va.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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