Crime & Courts

Fire investigators complained about unfair overtime wages. Wichita is paying up.

Watch: Helmet camera shows firefighters battling burning house

A video taken by the Wichita Fire Department shows firefighters putting out a house fire on the the 100 block of North Gordon on Dec. 7. (Video by Wichita Fire Department)
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A video taken by the Wichita Fire Department shows firefighters putting out a house fire on the the 100 block of North Gordon on Dec. 7. (Video by Wichita Fire Department)

The City of Wichita has agreed to pay nearly $155,000 to six fire department investigators who complained they weren’t getting paid overtime wages soon enough, ending a lawsuit alleging violations of federal labor law.

The settlement represents “100 cents on the dollar” for nearly $140,000 in claims brought by Branden Arnold, Chris Dugan, Donny Eckerman, Joseph Evans, Mark Reibenspies and David Thissen plus $15,000 for their attorney’s fees and other prosecution costs, according to a motion for settlement approved by a federal judge earlier this month.

The investigators alleged in a lawsuit filed in December that the city was using the wrong threshold to decide when to start paying them time and a half, resulting in lost wages of about $390 a paycheck for someone who makes $20 an hour, their attorney, Sean McGivern, said at the time.

They argued that because they are uniformed and trained law enforcement officers who aren’t involved in fire suppression, they should receive overtime pay after working 165 hours in a 27-day pay period — like police do — rather than after working 204 hours, like firefighters.

An exemption in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) lets cities establish a pay period longer than the typical seven-day workweek for firefighters and law enforcement personnel, allowing overtime pay to kick in later than the usual 40 hours for other hourly employees.

Wichita’s fire investigators at the time the lawsuit was filed were regularly working 50 or more hours a week.

Stuart Bevis, fire marshal and deputy chief of the Wichita Fire Department, said Wednesday the investigators were working 24-hour shifts — typical of firefighters — prior to the lawsuit’s filing.

The department moved those positions to 40-hour workweeks in January “once we came to the realization that there was something in FLSA that precluded the way were were doing it” and “to avoid further issues,” he said.

Overtime pay now kicks in if an investigator works more than 40 hours in a week, Bevis said.

It became apparent “through this suit that because of their work descriptions — the law enforcement element of their work — they should be treated more like law enforcement” in terms of overtime pay, Bevis continued.

The city’s law department and outside counsel “decided the settlement was in the best interest of the fire investigators and the city,” he added.

McGivern, the investigators’ attorney, said Wednesday that they are happy with the outcome. He said extensive negotiation efforts with the city “were successful because the city paid 100 percent of the relief sought” including three years of back pay and liquidated damages equal to the amount of their lost wages.

Liquidated damages compensate a worker for the inconvenience and harm of not being paid.

The amount each investigator will receive, not including lawyer’s fees and costs, according to court records, is:

Arnold — $27,016.29

Dugan — $17,491.78

Eckerman — $22,569.91

Evans — $20,279.34

Reibenspies — $22,296.71

Thissen — $30,160.61

The city paid each of the fire investigators named in the suit between $70,700 and $85,000 including overtime pay in 2016, according to salary information obtained by The Eagle.

Amy Renee Leiker: 316-268-6644, @amyreneeleiker

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