Arundel wins delay on paying $3 million in overtime to firefighters Justice says high court must hear county case

June 10, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist temporarily spared Anne Arundel County yesterday from having to pay nearly $3 million in overtime pay to 141 firefighters who work mainly as emergency medical technicians.

The county will not have to provide that pay until after the Supreme Court takes final action for or against the county's claim that it is unconstitutional to force local fire departments to obey the federal law that sets maximum hours and overtime pay at time-and-a-half rates.

For eight years, the county -- supported by the city of Baltimore -- has been locked in a court battle over the maximum hours for local public safety employees.

The county lost that fight in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., earlier this year. It plans to ask the Supreme Court to bar the enforcement of a federal wage-and-hour law against local governments on the theory that it intrudes on vital local functions.

Gail Thuman Watson, a senior assistant county attorney, said Anne Arundel would file its appeal by the end of July. In addition to the firefighter medics involved in the appeal, the county is involved in a similar lawsuit involving other firefighters, she said.

Meanwhile, the county asked Rehnquist -- who issues procedural orders for cases in the five-state 4th Circuit area that includes Maryland -- to postpone its obligation to pay the paramedics overtime pay they did not receive earlier.

Rehnquist agreed to the request. His order temporarily blocking the appeals court ruling appeared to mean that he thinks the justices will agree to hear the Anne Arundel appeal and decide the county's constitutional claim.

Medics in the county are trained as firefighters as well as emergency medical technicians, and the county pays overtime after they have worked 53 hours in any week. In their lawsuit, the 141 paramedics contended that they should be paid overtime after working 40 hours.

A federal judge in Baltimore agreed with the medics and awarded them $2,907,204 in overtime pay. The appeals court upheld that amount and refused to postpone the payment.

Last year, after the Supreme Court acted in a gun control case to give state and local governments greater constitutional protection against federal regulation, the county mounted a new challenge to the overtime pay ruling, claiming it is unconstitutional to apply the Fair Labor Standards Act to local public safety workers.

The appeals court rejected that challenge. It said the Supreme Court had previously upheld the law in that situation and that only the Supreme Court could change its mind on the subject. That outcome is what the county's appeal seeks.

Pub Date: 6/10/98

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