Orlando Sentinel

Firefighter suit heads for court

By Willoughby Mariano | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted November 10, 2002

Mediation over a federal court case accusing Osceola County of unfair labor practices against its firefighters ended recently without a conclusion, lawyers on both sides said.

The case will go to trial unless a judge agrees with county's request for a summary judgment. Previous filings have been rejected.

The case, filed Dec. 11, says that after three newly unionized county battalion chiefs complained they failed to receive overtime around December 2000, the county retaliated against them by making an administrative change that lowered their pay rate, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Orlando.

"These guys are there to protect the citizens in Osceola County whenever disaster strikes. They're called in at all hours and risk their lives," said David Robinson, an attorney for the Osceola County Professional Firefighters Local 3284. "They spend hours protecting the lives of others without any compensation at all."

County officials declined to comment, but denied the allegations in federal court filings. Human-resources officials changed the way they account for battalion chiefs' pay a few months after the complaint to correct a payroll error, not to punish firefighters, their filings state.

But lawyers for battalion chiefs Timothy Debrecht, Donald Bell and Samuel Jackson said the change had questionable timing. Around December 2000, after firefighters unionized, they began to demand overtime wages they stopped in 1994.

The change increased the length of the firefighters' standard work year without increasing their salary, which lowered their hourly pay rate, lawyers for the firefighters argued. The change decreased the money they receive for sick leave they do not take, plaintiffs' lawyers contend.

Battalion chiefs, who are among the higher ranks of the county's fire system, have not received overtime since 1994, according to federal court documents. They argue that they are entitled by law to overtime pay.

Willoughby Mariano can be reached at wmariano@orlandosentinel.com or 407-931-5944.