As the holiday season approaches and parents are buying their children gifts, Bloomington firefighters will be receiving long-awaited overtime payments.
The Bloomington Fire Department is owed $235,000 in back pay for overtime over the past two years. The discrepancy was recently discovered after a lengthy audit and investigation by Fire Chief Jason Moore and the City of Bloomington, Attorney Michael Rouker said.
Until recently, BFD was paid on a fluctuating work week system. The City of Bloomington turned to a fluctuating work week after the federal government advocated it as the best means to pay city employees like firefighters. However, that system is no longer usable.
The fluctuating work week is designed so that the more hours worked, the less is paid per hour, and the fewer hours worked, the more is paid per hour. A firefighter who worked 60 hours in a week would be paid less per hour than one who worked 40 hours.
“Many fire departments around the country were provided the same advice, and many began paying overtime accordingly,” Mary Catherine Carmichael, Bloomington communications director, said in a city press release Nov. 22.
Rouker said a firefighter brought the issue to the attention of the city earlier this year because he had not received the correct amount of pay for his overtime.
One hundred twelve firefighters were affected by the discrepancy and are owed different amounts ranging from approximately $80 to $2,000. Two firefighters were overpaid but will not have to pay anything back to Bloomington.
Bloomington Police Capt. Steve Kellams said BPD experienced a similar, if less drastic, situation a few years ago when he was a lieutenant. Kellams said the overtime payment system is based off the Fair Labor Standards Act, and it can cause problems for people.
“They have the ability to get overtime,” Kellams said. “But it’s really complicated.”
Rouker agreed, calling the system complex.
After a lengthy investigation, BFD said in a Nov. 22 news conference that a new payment system had been implemented and should prevent the same problems from arising in the future. Rouker confirmed this and said the new system is working well.
“It’s functioning perfectly,” Rouker said. “We will be paying the correct amount moving forward.”
The new system takes a 28-day period instead of a week-by-week approach to determine overtime. If a firefighter works enough hours to qualify for overtime in that 28-day period, then they receive back pay.
While Bloomington is only liable to pay for the last two years of overtime, the problem may have happened years before and gone unnoticed until now.
“It’s really tricky,” Rouker said. “It’s impossible to pinpoint a moment.”
The fire department in Chicago experienced a similar problem with its fluctuating work week system recently, Rouker said. Compared to Bloomington, Chicago has a lot more firefighters and resources, but it was still blindsided by the changes.
Rouker said the FLSA rules are developed through the court system and Bloomington is going to have to try and keep an eye on changing developments in the labor laws.
“We’ll have to be diligent about auditing ourselves,” Rouker said.
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