Career workers cannot volunteer Federal labor law limits firefighters

June 10, 1996|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,SUN STAFF

Worried they will face lawsuits about overtime, Howard County fire officials will begin enforcing a federal law July 1 that effectively bans its paid firefighters from also serving as volunteers.

Although the change affects only about nine firefighters, county fire Chief James Heller said the restriction will further erode the already low staffing at the county's fire stations. He said West Friendship, Lisbon and Elkridge stations will be particularly hard hit.

Earlier this year, a task force organized by County Executive Charles I. Ecker concluded that more than half the county's busiest stations are understaffed, responding to emergencies with too few firefighters on a truck 37 percent of the time.

In West Friendship, the largest number of career-volunteers -- at least five -- will be affected.

"It's an absolute travesty," said Charles C. Feaga, a County Council Republican who represents the west county area. "This is hitting at a crucial time. It's a very costly and disruptive interference of our volunteer fire companies."

Feaga said volunteer fire companies save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars each year -- money the county would otherwise have to use to pay career firefighters.

Ecker said that he has never been convinced there is a staffing shortage in the Fire Department and that the change would not compromise public safety. He is scheduled to meet with volunteer leaders tomorrow to discuss alternatives to make up for lost service.

Terry Thompson, president of the Howard County Volunteer Firefighters Association, refused to comment on the rule until after tomorrow's meeting with Ecker. "We've got to try and come up with some type of solution," Thompson said.

The county is trying to avoid potential lawsuits from workers claiming back pay under the 1938 federal Fair Labor Standards Act, a law enacted as a minimum-wage standard that protects workers from being forced to work unpaid time as a condition of employment.

Vincent Glorioso, a paid firefighter in the Savage Fire Station who also volunteers as a firefighter at the Elkridge Volunteer Fire Station near his home, said he finds the new restrictions discouraging.

"Everybody has a right to do what they want to do when they're off the job," said Glorioso, who has volunteered since 1970 and has been employed as a firefighter since 1972. "If the fire bell rings and I'm off duty, I should be able to utilize my skills."

Until a decade ago, the issue never seemed a conflict for local jurisdictions, which always have relied on volunteer firefighters. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the law, ruling that county employees are protected by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and must be paid overtime pay for work beyond their usual hours. Heller said the county then stopped off-duty volunteering by firefighters until the late 1980s, when county leaders decided to allow career firefighters to volunteer.

In recent years, Fire Department workers in adjoining counties have filed lawsuits for back pay, raising concerns in Howard about the law.

In Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, Fire Department paramedics sued to receive time-and-a-half pay for work over 40 hours in a week. Officials in both counties argued that the paramedics are "firefighters," and therefore must work 53 hours before they qualify for overtime.

But last summer, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the paramedics.

Anne Arundel County is appealing a $3 million award to paramedics. In March, Baltimore County officials agreed to pay $1.7 million in back pay to paramedics.

Although those cases didn't involve volunteer work, Howard County officials were concerned that firefighters here could file similar suits.

"The longer we waited to address it, the larger the liability," Heller said.

So far, he said, no Howard County firefighter has requested back pay for volunteer service.

The county mixes volunteers and paid firefighters at its 11 fire stations. Active volunteers number about 175 in Howard County, while paid firefighters total about 223. Fewer than a dozen do both, Heller said.

Most career firefighters work a 24-hour shift and then have 48 hours off. Most work other jobs during their off time, but some volunteer at their local fire department.

The Howard County Firefighters Association -- the union which represents most of the paid firefighters -- favors ending the practice of career firefighters working during their time off.

"There are standards we have to follow in the amount of hours we can work a week," union Vice President Jeff Loomis said. "All we want is the county to abide by fair labor laws."

While the county could just pay the career-volunteers for their extra time, the department doesn't have enough money to pay for an influx of career-volunteers, Heller said.

Those who volunteer say they have never done so for the money. Moreover, they said, if the county doesn't accept all the volunteer help it can get, the government will have to spend the more money on career firefighters.

"It's unfortunate," said Elkridge Volunteer Fire Chief Craig Peddicord. "It discourages the spirit of volunteerism."

Added Hank VanDeursen, a volunteer at Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company: "Firefighters do this because it's in their blood and they like doing this. Nobody's forcing us to do this. Why pay for something when it's free to begin with?"

Pub Date: 6/10/96

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