CLEARWATER — The Pinellas Sheriff's Office has broken a promise to its jail deputies — the promise that they should be paid for all the time they spend in their highly challenging job, an attorney said in court Tuesday.
"We have a modest proposal," attorney Tommy Roebig. "We'd like to be paid for the work."
The comment came during opening statements in a trial involving a class-action suit filed against the Sheriff's Office. The lawsuit is seeking potentially millions of dollars in compensation for as many as 1,000 jail deputies.
The lawsuit is based on the contention that deputies are required to work during their 30-minute meal breaks, which means that "in essence, the meal break is a fiction," Roebig said.
But attorney Rich McCrea, who is representing the Sheriff's Office, said deputies have been paid properly. Deputies who take 30-minute lunch breaks are not working, he said. They can go to a cafeteria, a gym, read, talk on the phone and in some cases go outside to their cars or pick up a meal to go, he said. While it's true they listen to the radio, this is a "passive" activity that's not the same as being on the job, he said.
"Other than listening to his radio, he was not performing any duties," McCrea said, referring to retired Deputy Douglas J. Morgan, who filed the lawsuit.
The sheriff never signed a contract, or agreed verbally, to pay deputies during their meal breaks, McCrea said.
"We will prove to you that there is nothing in writing anywhere, between the sheriff and Mr. Morgan or the deputies that said the deputies will be paid for the meal breaks," McCrea said.
There also was no agreement that all the time the deputies spend at the jail compound counted as work time, he said.
McCrea said that when deputies have their meal time interrupted for work, they can fill out a form to be paid for that time, or receive comp time.
The lawsuit was filed in 2006, when Jim Coats was sheriff. He is expected to testify in the case, as are former Sheriff Everett Rice and current Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
For the six-member jury, the trial promises to be a window into the rarely seen workplace of the jail, which Roebig said is the nation's 28th largest. One deputy testified on Tuesday that because of the constant threats and danger inside the jail, every deputy inside the facility must constantly remain on guard.
Roebig called it "a maximum-security environment with maximum-security risks and needs," a place where murderers, rapists and antisocial personalities are among the population of what amounts to a small city. To emphasize the stress and pressures deputies face, he showed photos of one unarmed deputy supervising about 50 inmates.
The trial is expected to extend into next week, and it could come in two parts.
If this jury decides in favor of the jail deputies, a separate jury will be picked for a later trial to decide how much the workers should be compensated.