Aug. 4–A year after the city of Houston made the last payment in a $79.7 million overtime settlement, more Houston Fire Department emergency workers are seeking unpaid overtime.
A new group of 46 paramedics and emergency medical technicians have filed suit in Houston federal court.
“They worked over 40 hours, but they didn’t get paid the overtime,” said their lawyer, Kristopher Ahn. “These are people who take care of us in an emergency and they are entitled to get paid for the time that they work.”
The 2004 settlement paid $72.2 million to 1,600 workers, plus $7.5 million more to their retirement fund. Ahn said he believes his clients should have received some of the windfall.
“It’s totally unfair for the people who, for whatever reason, were not in the litigation.”
The suit is filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a federal law that requires overtime pay at 1 1/2 times an employee’s regular rate after 40 hours per week. The law has an exception under certain circumstances for police officers and firefighters who work for public agencies.
“We think that we’re in compliance with state or federal law,” said Tim Higley, an assistant city attorney. “Anybody out in the field working emergency operation would be exempt from the 40-hour work week.”
He declined to comment further on the city’s overtime policy for emergency workers.
A 9-year fight
The earlier lawsuit challenged the city’s way of deciding when paramedics and EMTs qualified for overtime pay.
The city claimed EMS workers should be treated like firefighters, who earned overtime after working 46.7 hours per week. The emergency workers said they should be paid overtime beyond 40 hours a week.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes initially agreed with the city’s position and threw out the workers’ claims in 2000.
But in 2001, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the 40-hour-per-week standard applied to paramedics and EMTs and sent the case back to Hughes to determine what the emergency workers were owed.
The settlement ended a nine-year battle by Houston EMS workers to collect overtime pay. The original claim was filed in state court in 1995.
‘Unique legal hurdle’
The latest case, which has landed in Hughes’ courtroom, will be an uphill battle, said Troy Blakeney, the lead lawyer in the 2004 settlement and a national expert in firefighter overtime settlements who has won $100 million from the city in state and federal cases.
“If you don’t do it often, the (Fair Labor Standards Act) is difficult to understand,” said Blakeney, who was an HFD captain when he graduated from law school. “There will be a unique legal hurdle that they will have to overcome if they’re going to be successful in their case.”
Blakeney also said he’s monitoring the city for any new overtime violations. “If I thought the city did it incorrectly, I would sue them again.”