Mobile calls extra pay for cops an ‘incentive;’ firefighters call it illegal pay raise

Published: Feb. 3, 2023 at 6:17 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - A judge on Friday declined to settle a dispute that has pit police officers against firefighters, setting up a trial in May over a pay boost for cops approved las year.

The city and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1349, which is challenging the policy, both argued they were entitled to a ruling in their favor as a matter of law. But Mobile County Circuit Judge Michael Windom, in a standing-room only courtroom filled with first responders, said he believes that there is enough of a factual dispute that he wants to hear from witnesses.

The judge called the arguments on both sides “interesting, to say the least” and set a tentative trial date for May 3.

At issue a $5,200 pay supplement for police officers approved by the Mobile City Council in April to address difficulties retaining police officers. Fire-recue workers contend it violates a pay parity rule in place since 2004 requiting comparably experienced police and fire-rescue workers to earn the same pay.

Both sides agree the policy requires equal pay. Both sides also agree that the city is permitted to offer additional incentives on top of that for certain employees. What remains in dispute is whether the $5,200 – which the city calls an “Shift Pay Incentive Program” qualifies as a true incentive.

L.D. Holt, an attorney for the firefighters, told the judge that incentives are designed to entice employees to take on duties that are undesirable or hazardous. The shift incentive policy, he said, benefits all police officers and requires no additional training or duties.

As fire-rescue worker Matt Waltman put it outside the courtroom: “We feel that the city has implemented a pay raise disguised as an incentive based on what they’re asking for and the merits of the shift-incentive policy.”

But City Attorney Ricardo Woods argued in court that the program is an incentive because it addresses stresses that are unique to policework.

“What a police officer does is distinctly different from what firefighters do,” he said.

Woods pointed, as an example, to the fact that police officers are subject to getting called in during their off time. While that also is true for firefighters, he said, it is not the same. He noted that police officers often work at night and then have to return the next morning to testify in court.

“If you’re a firefighter, that doesn’t happen,” he said.

In support of its argument, the city submitted a deposition form a physician who has treated fire firefighter and police and finds officers have more difficult health problems.

The policy does not explicitly disqualify fire-rescue workers but has language that effectively makes them ineligible for the extra money. For instance, it is available only to employees who work eight-, 10- and 12-hour shifts, which excludes the majority of fire-rescue workers who are on call for 24-hour periods.

The policy also requires Alabama Police Officer Standards and Training certification, which requires graduating from the police academy. Firefighters have their own certification.

The lawyers said out of 400 Fire-Rescue Department employees, only eight to 10 – who have both certifications – received the incentive pay.

Holt decried the “inexplicable” policy that “meticulously excludes and extricates the firefighters.”

Windom asked why the city chose not to include fire-rescue workers.

“The incentive seems to have left them out,” he said.

Arthur Madden, and attorney for the Mobile County Personnel Board, backed the city’s position. He noted that all sides agree the incentive program is not part of the regular pay schedule.

“I think that’s the end of the inquiry,” he said.

Madden said the firefighters union simultaneously argues that the shift incentive program is illegal and that fire-rescue workers should be able to participate in it.

“It’s a little like saying the food is horrible and the portions are too small,” he said.

While intended purpose of the program is to stem the loss of police officers, Waltman said it has had the opposite impact on his department.

“Since the implementation of this incentive policy, the Fire Department has lost over 10 percent of their workforce,” he said.


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