Omaha Firefighters still wait for ’09 back pay

OMAHA, NE &#8211 When it comes to the city’s relationship with the Omaha fire union, things are rarely simple.

The latest example: 14 months after the state labor court ordered a year’s worth of back pay for the city’s firefighters, union members are still waiting to receive their share of $2.3 million in wages.

The reasons are symptomatic of the ongoing disputes between the city and fire union. Continuing litigation between the parties contributed to the wait. So did a scuttled labor contract proposal and the fact that a single city employee is responsible for overseeing difficult payout calculations based on firefighters’ complex wage structures.

But after months of delays, city administrators have calculated how the labor court order for 2009 will affect roughly 685 firefighters.

Union members are now reviewing the city’s calculations to clear up any discrepancies or lodge protests, said Assistant City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch.

Roughly 100 firefighters could receive nothing or end up owing the city money, said fire union attorney John Corrigan and union President Steve LeClair.

A few others, for reasons such as rank and longevity pay, could receive sums of about $20,000.

The goal is to pay out the 2009 back wages by April 27. The fire union has sued the city over the delayed payment.

Meanwhile, a labor court ruling on 2010 wages is expected any day. A case for 2011 back wages is also pending, as is a legal dispute over back pay and other issues linked to a 2008 case.

Corrigan and LeClair said the back pay from the 2009 case is long past due.

“It’s taken way too long,” LeClair said. “And that’s a product of complete government inefficiency.”

LeClair said not enough city resources were devoted to handling the back pay calculations.

“We wish it would’ve happened a long time ago, but I can’t prescribe motivations to anybody,” Corrigan said. “As much as we want it done, they don’t have the staff to process all the stuff. That’s what they’ve told us.”

In January 2011, the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations gave the city 90 days to distribute the back pay for 2009.

At the time, however, Mayor Jim Suttle’s administration was in the midst of negotiating a new fire labor agreement. That contract included a rider that would have settled some litigation and divided the 2009 back pay equally among union members.

The agreement would have precluded the need to calculate the amount due to each member, in den Bosch said. Sixty-eight percent of voting fire union members later cast ballots to approve the deal, which would have run through 2013.

In August, however, the City Council turned down the mayor’s contract proposal and rescinded Suttle’s authority to negotiate union contracts.

The city then moved ahead with calculating the precise amount owed to each firefighter, in den Bosch said. The city’s payroll manager has been largely responsible for calculating the individual payouts.

“The payroll manager is the person who has done the calculations in the past and is the type of person who is most competent to do them,” in den Bosch said.

The calculations must factor in myriad issues, including a firefighter’s rank and progression through city pay scales in 2009. Any promotion also must be accounted for, along with overtime, specialty pay and sick leave.

“There’s no question, it’s extremely complicated to do it,” in den Bosch said.

Fire union representatives say they offered to assign a union officer, whose duties include payroll oversight, to assist with the calculations, but their offers were rebuffed by the city.

Nonetheless, work to calculate the back wages was ongoing during the fall and winter, in den Bosch said.

Then, in January of this year, a Douglas County district judge rejected how the city implemented fire pay scales following a separate 2008 labor court order.

In den Bosch said the decision caused a two-month delay, as the city readjusted fire pay scales for 2009 to be in line with the judge’s ruling.

“Our position would be, you should’ve done that all along,” Corrigan said. “That’s not an excuse necessarily for the lateness of it, because that’s the way you should’ve approached it from day one.”

From The Omaha World Herald.