San Diego Paying $440K To Helicopter Medics To Settle Overtime Lawsuits

San Diego is paying seven helicopter rescue medics a total of $442,000 because they didn’t receive overtime pay despite regularly working 56-hour weeks.

Federal law requires overtime pay of one and a half times the regular wage for all hours worked over 40 in one workweek, but there is an exemption for government workers engaged in fire suppression.

Helicopter rescue medics had long been covered under that exemption, but a federal appeals court ruling in 2014 ended that because the duties of helicopter medics don’t include putting out fires.

San Diego officials shrunk the workweeks of the medics down from 56 to 40 hours in early 2017, but the medics filed lawsuits last year seeking overtime pay for the period between the federal ruling and when their workweeks were shortened.

City officials initially fought the lawsuits, contending the city was justified in requiring the helicopter medics to work the same 56-hour weeks as all firefighters and paramedics because they are all covered by the same labor deal.

But attorneys for the city subsequently reached settlements with the helicopter medics that are scheduled to receive final City Council approval on Tuesday. The council previously approved the deals this winter in a session closed to the public.

Medic Scott Pearson will receive the largest payout of $135,000, which will include a payroll check of $55,000. The remainder of his settlement will cover other damages he suffered and attorney’s fees.

The six other medics, who filed a separate class action lawsuit, will receive a total of $125,000 in payroll checks and $182,000 for other damages and attorney’s fees.

The hourly pay rate for city helicopter rescue medics was $41.39 when the lawsuits were filed last year.

The payroll checks include $61,000 for Barry Links, $60,000 for Steve Vandewalle, $2,500 for Timothy Olson and less than $1,000 each for Andrea Dominguez, Brian Sanford and Christopher Sovay.

The overtime exemption for workers engaged in fire suppression is part of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

Instead of requiring overtime pay for all hours over 40 in a workweek, the exemption allows government agencies to pay overtime only when fire suppression workers log more than 212 hours in a 28-day period.

Before their shifts were changed in early 2017, helicopter rescue medics were entitled to only a small amount of overtime because they worked 216 hours every 28 days – the same nine shifts of 24 hours worked by firefighters and paramedics.

The federal exemption was challenged by several Los Angeles helicopter rescue medics who contended they don’t engage in fire suppression activities.

They won their case in a lower court and then the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal upheld that ruling in 2014.

The appeals court said the medics “do none of the activities normally associated with suppressing a fire.”

According to the San Diego lawsuits, the medics don’t wear fire protection gear and their work mainly consists of medical duties, with the air ambulance substituting for a road ambulance.

Other duties include setting up equipment, establishing secure landing sites, evacuating people and filling the helicopters with fuel and water.

While loading water onto the chopper that will be dropped on a fire may seem like fire suppression work, the lawsuits stress that the medics don’t ride on the choppers during such efforts.

A spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer said that when city officials shrunk the workweeks of helicopter medics they simultaneously increased the number of medics on duty from three to four.

“Ultimately, there is no reduction in service hours with the new schedule,” said the spokesman, Greg Block. “Our rescue capabilities with helicopter are available 24/7/365.”

From The San Diego Union-Tribune

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