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SLO city settles one labor dispute, faces another 

The San Luis Obispo City Council put a long-standing labor dispute with one group of the city’s first responders to bed but will likely inherit another fight currently set to play out in federal court.

The council voted Dec. 13 to approve a settlement with the SLO Police Officers Association (SLOPA) that would end a lengthy legal battle over who has the final say in labor disputes between the union and the city. The settlement will put to rest a fight that began in 2011, when the council voted to place a measure on a special election ballot that would eliminate binding arbitration—the use of an independent third party to settle labor disagreements—in disputes between the city’s police and fire department unions. It was one of two labor-related measures voters passed, causing SLOPA to file a complaint with the state’s Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), accusing the city of unfair labor practices.

click to enlarge TAKING HEAT:  Twenty two SLO fire department employees are part of a federal lawsuit filed against the city allegeding they were underpaid overtime for at least three years. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • TAKING HEAT: Twenty two SLO fire department employees are part of a federal lawsuit filed against the city allegeding they were underpaid overtime for at least three years.

Under the settlement, SLOPA will receive $150,000 and drop the PERB complaint. In exchange, the city agreed to modify how it resolves contract impasses, including appointing an independent fact finder to make recommendations to the council. 

But even as the PERB complaint comes to a close, the city is named in an ongoing federal lawsuit brought by 22 fire department employees. That lawsuit claims that the city knowingly underpaid fire department employees because it failed to include cash payments they received in lieu of benefits in their overtime pay calculations. 

“The city’s failure and/or refusal to accurately calculate plaintiffs’ regular rate of pay resulted in a significant underpayment of overtime hours works,” the lawsuit stated. 

Under the current labor contract, some fire department employees can forego health and dental benefits and receive a cash payment instead. Under federal labor law, employers calculate overtime pay at 1.5 times an employee’s “regular rate of pay.” The lawsuit claims that the city violated federal law when it failed to include the in-lieu cash payments as part of the group’s regular pay, thus they were underpaid for overtime hours. City Attorney Christine Dietrick said the city had not been served with the lawsuit but was aware of the complaint. 

“We’ve reviewed the claims asserted against the city and are familiar with the background, but disagree with the characterization of the history of this issue reflected in the complaint,” Dietrick stated in an email response to questions from New Times.

Dietrick noted that the issue of in-lieu payments and overtime was recently addressed by the California 9th District Court of Appeals in June, Flores v. City of San Gabriel. The city agreed to conduct an audit and review any changes to the city’s obligation as a result of the Flores case.

“It is unfortunate that public time and resources will have to be directed away from productive efforts to resolve any issues in good faith, as well as the city’s other important work for the community, in order to defend against this litigation, which the city views as wholly unnecessary to address any concerns created by the Flores decision,” Detrick wrote.

The case remains open in federal court. Hayes and Ortega, the firm representing the fire department employees, did not return calls seeking comment.

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