West Virginia IAFF affiliates have been waging a decades-long effort to convince city leaders to provide fire fighters with the holiday pay they have legally earned. A recent West Virginia Supreme Court ruling in favor of fire fighters in Martinsburg may compel those cities to stop fighting and pay up.
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in late August granted Martinsburg Local 805’s motion to dismiss an appeal filed by the City of Martinsburg challenging a lower court’s ruling that holiday pay must be based on fire fighters’ actual time on the clock.
Fire fighters throughout West Virginia work 24-hour shifts; under state law they should be paid time-and-a-half for holidays. Some cities, however, have only compensated fire fighters for 12 hours in holiday pay (pay for an eight our shift, plus four hours of overtime).
While Martinsburg Local 805 has tried to resolve the matter with the city through mediation – and even offered a proposed settlement lower than the backpay they are due – the city has balked and instead spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting in court.
A similar battle is playing out in Morgantown, West Virginia, where Local 313 sued the City of Morgantown in 2019 over unpaid holiday pay as well. In anticipation of a judge’s ruling in favor of the fire fighters, the city began paying the proper level of holiday overtime. Now Local 313 is seeking to compel the city to pay up for unpaid holiday overtime pay for five years prior to 2019.
The decades-old holiday pay statute applies to every professional fire fighter in West Virginia. The dismissal of the appeal now paves the way for cases to proceed across the state. Some cities, such as Charleston, have been able to resolve their holiday pay disputes in negotiations and without litigation. Like Martinsburg and Morgantown, affiliates in Parkersburg and Huntington find themselves battling in court with their cities.
“We have been fighting to get this holiday pay issue rectified for years. This Supreme Court ruling is good news, but the fight to get cities to fairly compensate fire fighters is ongoing,” says Professional Fire Fighters of West Virginia Secretary-Treasurer Jayson Nicewarner.
According to Teresa Toriseva, an attorney representing IAFF affiliates statewide, the Municipal League and association of city administrators has adopted a strategy of fighting the holiday pay disputes through lengthy and costly court battles. She suggested cities change their tune and consider settling now that the West Virginia Supreme Court has made its ruling.
Public sentiment in the state appears to be heading in that direction. An August 31, 2021, editorial in the Morgantown Dominion Post noted that the City of Morgantown and its fire fighters were only about $250,000 apart in their dispute over holiday pay.
The editorial stated: “It’s absurd the City of Morgantown would rather spend years litigating and paying lawyers’ fees than just meet the IAFF local’s request. At this point, probably far more than that quarter of a million-dollar difference has been spent on legal fees. If anything, the city should be grateful the fire fighters are willing to settle for less than they are owed.”
Toriseva is confident that West Virginia affiliates will win this battle, though notes the issue is about more than just holiday pay.
“West Virginia’s professional fire fighters make our cities safer. They deserve to be paid according to the law. Retaining veteran fire fighters and recruiting new ones relies on accurate and fair pay. It’s about fairness and public safety,” Toriseva says.