Editorials, Opinion

Local firefighter case will set statewide precedent

The ongoing dispute between the City of Morgantown and local firefighters over holiday pay has made its way to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Whatever the court decides will impact paid firefighters across the Mountain State.

As Erin Cleavenger reported, International Association of Firefighters Local 313 contends Morgantown did not fully compensate firefighters for shifts worked on holidays. In a previous ruling, Monongalia County Circuit Court Judge Phillip D. Gaujot said firefighters were entitled to time off or additional pay only during the legal holiday itself, but the state Wage Payment and Collection Act does not apply to this case, so the City of Morgantown did not fail to pay “wages” or “fringe benefits” to the firefighters. (Morgantown firefighters work 24-hour shifts beginning at 8 a.m., so they did not receive holiday pay for hours worked outside the official holiday.)

Attorney Teresa Toriseva is representing Morgantown’s firefighters. She believes the clear language of the WPCA mandates that firefighters get holiday pay whether they work the holiday or not. She argued before the state supreme court that firefighters’ 24-hour shift is typically considered one calendar day when calculating payroll, sick days, vacation days, etc., regardless of when the shift begins, so holiday pay should be calculated that way as well.

The West Virginia Supreme Court is tasked with deciding whether holiday pay under the firefighter holiday pay statute is a “wage” under the Wage Payment Collection Act and whether a firefighter will be paid for their entire shift or just the portion.

We don’t know what the high court will decide. What we do know is that whatever the state supreme court decides, it won’t just affect Morgantown — it will set a precedent that impacts paid fire departments throughout West Virginia.

Several cities have faced similar cases in the last few years, including Huntington and Parkersburg. In those cases — unlike the Morgantown’s  — judges ruled in favor of the firefighters.  

In the Huntington case, according to the West Virginia Record, “firefighters who have no duty hours on the relevant holidays will be provided an additional 12 hours of paid time off over and above what they now receive under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. A firefighter who ends his shift at 7 a.m. on the holiday will receive an additional 5 hours of paid time off over and above what they now receive under the current CBA. Those who start their shift at 7 a.m. on a holiday will be paid according to the CBA.”

In the Parkersburg case, as also reported by the West Virginia Record, the judge ruled “the city shall pay the firefighters based on their 24-hour shift, meaning 36 hours of pay or 24 hours equal time off for each legal holiday. … [F]irefighters who worked overtime during previous holidays are owed wages for two times their regular rate of pay.”

The City of Huntington has already agreed to a backpay settlement, but both it and Parkersburg will look to the West Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in the Morgantown case for any payments and policies moving forward. This makes Morgantown’s case the one to watch. It will either reaffirm what other cities have been told to do, or it will reverse those lower court rulings.