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Clearwater firefighters sue city, claiming officials withheld overtime payments

CLEARWATER — Nearly 160 current and former Clearwater firefighters have sued the city in federal court, claiming officials withheld overtime payments for years.

Comprising most of the Clearwater Fire & Rescue workforce, the group of 159 filed suit this week seeking unspecified back pay, damages and interest.

City officials said they would not comment on the litigation.

At issue is firefighters' holiday pay and overtime, said Doug Steele, an attorney for Woodley & McGillivary, the Washington, D.C., firm representing the firefighters.

Firefighters who did not work a holiday received the holiday stipend, but firefighters who did work a holiday saw that holiday pay deducted from their earned overtime, the suit says.

That policy, which Steele said the city used "for the reasonably known past," deprived firefighters of due pay and was done in a "knowing, willful and bad faith manner," the suit says.

Attorneys, Steele said, could not estimate how much overtime was withheld without city employment and payroll records, which the suit wants the city to preserve.

Led by John Klinefelter, president of the union for rank-and-file firefighters, the suit represents a large part of the department's nearly 200 sworn and civilian employees. Five retired firefighters are also named as plaintiffs.

The suit marks the latest tension between the city and its firefighters.

Last year, the union, International Association of Firefighters Local 1158, finalized its newest contract with the city after three years of bitter bargaining, conceding to changes in raises and pensions but keeping workweek limits and special overtime.

Overtime accounted for $650,000 of the fire department's $22 million budget last year, or about 3 percent, budget records show.

In 2010, a city audit found that a dozen assistant and division fire chiefs had earned a total of nearly $75,000 in overtime to which they were not entitled.

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Clearwater firefighters sue city, claiming officials withheld overtime payments 06/27/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 6:52pm]
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