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Hillsborough sheriff agrees to pay back overtime wages to 18 former investigators

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has agreed to pay $136,032 in overtime wages to 18 child-protection investigators who took the agency to court after it refused to abide by the findings of a federal labor investigation.

The settlements, approved late last month by U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore, are the most recent turn in a class-action lawsuit filed against the Sheriff's Office in 2011. Six of the 24 plaintiffs have refused to accept the sheriff's settlement offers and continue to pursue the case.

The suit amounted to a minor revolt among the ranks of the sheriff's Child Protective Investigations Division, which is responsible for some of the county's most harrowing law-enforcement work. Investigators, who are not sworn deputies, must review accusations of physical and sexual abuse of minors and remove children from unsafe homes when necessary.

Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter referred questions about the case to Tony Peluso, chief legal counsel for the agency. Peluso declined to comment because of the claims that are still pending in federal court.

The lawsuit's prelude was a 2011 investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor, which found the Sheriff's Office had committed overtime violations against 65 child-protection investigators. The sheriff employs roughly 85 child-protection investigators overall, according to the department's review.

A federal investigator found the employees had not been compensated for hours they worked from home and were owed $402,049. Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee agreed to change office policies for tracking overtime hours but refused to pay back wages.

In a letter to the Department of Labor, Peluso wrote that "as responsible law enforcement officers and public servants," Sheriff's Office leaders "need more data regarding the allegations of unpaid wages than your department is willing or able to provide at this time."

The efforts of federal investigators to arrive at an amount owed to the uncompensated employees was not necessarily a model of precision: According to a report by Department of Labor official Martin Altabas, the $402,049 figure was calculated by applying an "average" of four overtime hours per week for each of the 65 unpaid workers.

The individual settlement amounts paid out by the Sheriff's Office in the lawsuit ranged from $19,999 to $716. The average amount per plaintiff was $7,557, a sum that is actually greater than the average pay owed per worker under the Department of Labor calculation.

Brandon lawyer Tanya O'Connor, who represented the child-protection investigators in the suit, said her clients — who are no longer employed at the Sheriff's Office — believed litigation was their only recourse after the federal investigation failed to recoup their money.

"They thought, 'The federal government doesn't even have the authority to make them do the right thing,' " O'Connor said. "There was a lot of fear and intimidation."

In an affidavit filed in the case, John Sheppard — who worked at the Sheriff's Office from 2006 through 2011 and received a $10,574 settlement — said he served on the Child Protection Investigator Advisory Council, which offered feedback on investigators' working conditions to Gee's command staff.

"At each meeting" of the council, Sheppard wrote in his sworn affidavit, "between 80 percent and 90 percent of CPIs present raised their hands indicating that they had worked overtime for which they were not compensated."

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

Hillsborough sheriff agrees to pay back overtime wages to 18 former investigators 08/07/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 8, 2013 12:45am]

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