Louisville firefighters and retirees involved in a nine-year legal battle over miscalculated pay could get at least $43.5 million if they agree to a tentative settlement that their representatives and metro government reached earlier this month.
Firefighters, both active and retired, began hearing details of the settlement in two meetings Wednesday. Two more are set for Thursday. They’re being told how much they would get under the deal, and asked to vote on whether or not they approve it.
After the first meeting, at 2 p.m. Wednesday, retired firefighter Bruce Cunningham said, “We’re happy, I think generally everybody’s happy” with the proposal.
If firefighters approve the deal, the metro council will also have to approve it.
The tentative settlement, which would resolve two lawsuits filed by firefighters, was reached during a mediation meeting on Oct. 5. But the cost of the settlement to Louisville had remained secret because of a confidentiality agreement.
The Courier-Journal was given details about the agreement by firefighters who attended the informational meetings Wednesday, but did not want to be identified, saying they’d been asked to honor the confidentiality agreement.
City officials would not confirm nor deny details in the settlement, also saying they are bound by the confidentiality agreement. The details won’t be officially released until the settlement is sent to the metro council for approval.
But according to sources at the meeting, the settlement would involve three payments — Dec. 1, and March 31 and July 15, 2010. The nearly 800 firefighters and retirees would be paid a portion of the $43.5 million based on their years of service, their salary and the number of hours worked. In addition, metro government would agree to pay $1.5 million in attorney fees.
It is unclear what the arrangement for any pension fund reimbursement would be.
Doug Steele, a lawyer representing the firefighters, said there was good turnout at Wednesday’s meetings.
“We’re very optimistic based on the reception,” Steele said. “It’s a very positive step toward a resolution.”
Craig Willman, fire union president, said officials are hoping for 100 percent agreement from those involved in the lawsuits.
“It puts an end to this thing,” Willman, who is a plaintiff in the suits, said of the tentative deal. “This thing’s long overdue, and it needs to be done.”
Greg Lentz, a retired sergeant, said he was “extremely happy” with the settlement offer.
“I’m glad to see it’s over,” Lentz said. “We work hard for our money and I think we deserve this.”
But Lentz expressed frustration with the amount of time it took to get to this point.
“I think the city was negligent,” he said. “I believe they thought of it as a game, that they never took it serious enough and to us as firefighters, it was very serious.”
Groups of firefighters exiting one of the afternoon meetings clustered in the halls of the Crowne Plaza hotel smiling and joking with each other. Many who would not give their names said they were happy with the settlement.
The crux of the dispute is the firefighter’s belief that they were underpaid because state incentive pay for training and longevity had not been included in calculations for overtime pay.
The suits also said that work over 40 hours should be calculated as overtime. Louisville firefighters work an average of 56 hours a week, with 16 hours of overtime. Previously, the city had not included those hours in the overtime calculations.
One of the lawsuits alleged that Louisville violated wage and hour laws with the miscalculation.
A year ago, the Kentucky Supreme Court denied the city’s request to overturn a ruling that firefighters were entitled to back pay for a five-year period in that case. Since that ruling, a judge has ruled that the city owes firefighters about $19.7 million in back pay.
The other lawsuit spans a 15-year period and centers on the argument that the miscalculation of pay violates the firefighter’s contract.
In September, the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld a Jefferson Circuit Court ruling that says Louisville violated the contract by not including the incentive pay and other bonuses in calculations of overtime pay.
Steele has said the 15-year lawsuit could add $7.6 million, plus millions of dollars in interest, to the total owed to firefighters.
Both sides have cited payout figures that could exceed $60 million depending on what the courts ruled was due to firefighters in interest and other fees.
At the time, metro government officials said they would appeal the decision and would not negotiate with firefighters. But after the Oct. 5 mediation session was held, both sides confirmed the tentative agreement.
Kerri Richardson, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Abramson, said the city is hopeful the proposal will resolve the dispute.
“We’ve worked hard with the leadership to come to an agreement,” Richardson said.
Bill Patteson, a spokesman for Jefferson County Attorney Michael O’Connell, said his office would not comment on any details of a possible settlement, citing the confidentiality agreement.
“We don’t have an agreement until the firefighters ratify and it’s approved by metro council,” Patteson said.
Another group made up of 135 retired firefighters who sued the city over the same issues, are not part of the settlement. That group, represented by attorney Ann Oldfather, is still negotiating with the city.