Fighting more than fire - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Fighting more than fire

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) -

Imagine being a manager but actually making less money than your subordinates. 

That's what firefighters say is happening in Savannah's fire department.

"This isn't a group of guys who is very litigious and they've never looked to sue anybody," said John Hafemann, Military Justice Attorneys.

However, now 50 Savannah fire captains are suing the city claiming the pay policy the city drafted isn't being followed.

According to court documents, the pay policy in effect when these firemen were hired says fire captains must be paid at least 5 percent more than their highest paid employee. According to the class action lawsuit, in many cases that's not happening.  That may not sound right to you but that's not the question - the question is, is it legal?

To determine that, we need to know this: Is the pay policy a contract that must be adhered to or is it just a guideline that can be changed at the city's discretion?

The city says it has no obligation to pay the fire captains what they're asking because the pay policy is part of the employee handbook, which they say is not a contract.

"There are rights for employers and one of those rights is that a provision in an employee handbook, which is the matter at hand here, does not constitute a contract and there's no provision in state law that requires an employer to enter into a contract with an employee," said Bret Bell, City of Savannah spokesman.

The firefighters say the pay policy stands alone, it's not part of the handbook, and is a contract.

"It's a simple idea,” said Hafemann. “If someone tells you they're going to pay you a certain amount of money to do your job, and then you start to work, you should get paid what you were promised."

The Georgia Court of Appeals agreed, offering this opinion, "…we find no basis for treating the Pay Policy as part of the Handbook prior to January 2014, when the Handbook was expanded to include the Pay Policy within its terms."

More than a year and a half ago, the case initially went before Judge Bass in the Chatham County Court.  He dismissed it. 

So, the firefighters took it to the Court of Appeals where the judge ruled in their favor saying the case has merit. The city then took it to the Supreme Court of Georgia where the justices recently denied a review the case. So now, the case goes back to Judge Bass' courtroom for trial.

"The city has chosen to fight the case, instead of solving it and settling the matter and getting these guys back focused on their mission," said Hafemann.

"When we're defending tax payers against this lawsuit, we're not only concerned about the direct impact of giving these captains just a blanket increase, but also the ramifications of other employees across the organization and obviously from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, they're concerned about the impact of employers across Georgia," said Bell.

What the city is saying is, if the fire captains win the ruling, it would set precedent and open the door for many other employees in the state to file similar lawsuits including Savannah-Chatham Metro Police.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce recognized they too could be affected by the outcome and filed paperwork asking the state's high court to reverse the ruling.

The city has already spent more than $42,000 on the effort and the trial hasn't even started.  Keep in mind, this is a case with the potential of 50 firefighter depositions. The legal fees could run into the hundreds of thousands.

So, this begs the question, is this a good use of tax payer dollars?

"Absolutely not.  I'm a resident of Chatham County myself and let's start fighting crime in this city instead of fighting those who are trying to protect us," said Hafemann.

"It is and I think that it's for the reason that I just said which is in this case, we're not just interested in the claims of the 50 firefighters themselves.  We are very concerned about the precedent that such a ruling would set," said Bell.

If the city loses the case, the money owed to the fire captains would be substantial.

"We believe that our average client is owed between $10,000 and $15,000 in back pay per year," said Hafemann.

Fifty captains would be owed that, some for up to six years of back-pay.

"The city just needs to say we messed this thing up and we need to make it right and we will and there shouldn't have to be lawyers involved at all," said Hafemann.

"This is more than 50 firefighters, this is about the thousands of employers and frankly employees too across Georgia," said Bell.

The city recently conducted what they call a major classification and compensation study.  As a result, they implemented changes including a 10 percent raise for most Savannah firemen that went into effect June 29th.  They say the total cost of the raises was $2 million.

No trial date is set for this case yet.

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