Morgantown, W.;. — The Morgantown Fire Department Civil Service Commission heard about six hours of testimony Wednesday in a retaliation lawsuit by the city firefighters against the city.
The hearing comes in response to a legal battle over wages, benefits and vacation pay that has dragged on since the summer of 2019.
“We want to work with the city to get some solutions here, so we don’t just continue the legal battles,” said Mitchell Bell, president of the International Association of Firefighters. “No one wants to be here.”
Attorneys for firefighters told the committee that the new pay policy eliminates the lead firefighter, pay grade earned at the ten-year service mark, hazard pay, longevity pay and differential pay. Firefighters also said the plan significantly reduces their paid vacation time and questioned how base pay rates in the study were calculated.
Morgantown’s payroll manager Kathy Pinault couldn’t explain where base rates came from for calculating firefighters’ salary, but confirmed the use of rates to calculate wages for GovHR’s study of salary changes that went into effect July 1, 2022.
It acknowledged that the new policy eliminated sick time and consolidated vacation and paid time off into the Standard Paid Time Off (PTO) system. The new policy also sets the PTO at 360 hours.
According to Bell, firefighters work 56 and a half hours a week while regular city employees work 40 hours a week. Beall believes that firefighters should be proportionately able to earn more PTO, but that is not the case. An employee who works 40 hours can earn up to 240 PTO hours each year and can cash in another 80 hours to continue into the next year. Bell said firefighters can earn up to 360 hours, but they must use all hours in the current year.
Emily Mozzarelli, assistant city manager, also acknowledged the changes to payroll systems and asked why other city employees weren’t given hazard pay. She said other city workers such as the Morgantown Municipal Airport and public works employees who clear out homeless camps operate under similar conditions. In addition, she noted, law enforcement and parking authority workers are increasingly facing threats of violence.
Bill Kaweki was mayor when the council passed a major firefighter pay class in 2017, an additional $1.09 per hour in recognition of ten years of service. During his testimony on Wednesday, Kawecki referred to the move as a way to make the city his “employer of choice.”
“Everyone else before July that was at 10 earned $1.09 an hour,” Bell said. Now, a firefighter who was hired the same year I hired him. How is that fair?
Prior to July 1, firefighters received 14 paid holidays throughout the year that were “floating” days off. Since some firefighters are required to work on holidays, the time was portable. Firefighter can redeem Christmas vacation in 2022 for a day off in February 2023 – no longer available.
Kawecki said in his testimony that the hearing was the first at which he had been informed that a master firefighter pay line was no longer being offered to him.
“Now, they’ve taken all that time away from us and they’re saying we’ll pay you a premium for that time,” Bell said. “Which is my understanding under state law, you can do that, even though you gave it to us historically.”
Besides Bell, about 25 current and retired firefighters were in session.
“It’s sad, we go into town and try to talk to them about it,” Bell said. “You go to these sessions and all you hear is, ‘I’ve never heard of that before, this is the first time it’s been offered to me.'” “
According to Beall, every firefighter in Morgantown committed themselves to the city and in turn called for to settle down and retire.
“If I left 20 years ago for all my years, I wouldn’t get a dime out of it – I don’t get a pension,” Bell said. “The only way to get a pension is if you stay for 20 years, so we are here and we want to be here.”
The hearing will resume on December 8.
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