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EMS workers win $1.5 million lawsuit

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County to pay settlement immediately

By Chris Sardelli

A case involving unpaid overtime money for several Lancaster County Emergency Medical Services workers has finally been settled – to the tune of $1.5 million.
For the last 17 months, a group of 59 former and current EMS employees have been awaiting the results of a class-action lawsuit they jointly filed against Lancaster County.  
In the lawsuit, filed Oct. 29, 2010, in federal district court, the workers sued the county, saying it violated the national Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and owes EMS employees money for years of unpaid overtime compensation and work done following the end of their shifts.
On March 8, a federal judge formally settled the suit, with the county agreeing to pay $1.5 million to the group of workers. County Administrator Steve Willis said the two sides agreed to terms in December. The settlement had to be reviewed by a judge before it could be finalized.
The settlement covers claims for all 59 employees from a three-year period, according to a statement prepared March 20 by Willis and county labor attorney Chris Johnson of Columbia-based Gignilliat, Savitz & Bettis law firm.
“The county and the medics both sought to determine whether any medics were underpaid under the previous pay plan and, if so, by how much,” the statement reads. “After discussions with representatives of the medics, and after reviewing reports from economists retained by both the county and the medics, the parties were able to reach agreement on appropriate compensation for the underpayments.”
“The county believes the agreement represents fair and appropriate compensation for time worked by the medics under the old pay plan, and is a good result for both sides,” the statement said.
“Before the lawsuit was filed, the county acted to correct practices that resulted in the underpayments.”
County Council Chairwoman Kathy Sistare said last week she would not add any comments other than what was prepared by Willis and Johnson.
“We handled it in the best way we felt possible,” Sistare said. “We respected their (EMS workers) concerns, but we also had to look after the county as well.”
Newly appointed EMS Director Clay Catoe also said he could not comment on the case and referred all questions to Willis and county Human Resource Director Lisa Robinson.
Under the terms of the settlement, Johnson said the money can now be allocated.
“The county has 30 days to pay it out and I don’t see any problem in them doing it,” Johnson said March 20. “The order is final, so that means the case is now over.”
The settlement
According to the settlement, $500,000 will go toward attorney’s fees and $35,000 for reimbursement costs. A total of $67,500 will be split among the lead plaintiffs and a plaintiff steering committee.
The remaining $897,500 will go to pay 100 percent of the plaintiffs’ three main claims involving back pay.
Willis said the county was writing checks to the EMS workers last week and said the money should be distributed almost “instantly.” He said compensation would vary according to how many overtime hours each employee worked.
Overtime concerns
David Rothstein, of Greenville-based Rothstein Law Firm, who represented the EMS workers, said March 20 he and his clients were pleased with the outcome.
“I think the settlement was the product of a pretty good effort from both parties to reach a resolution,” Rothstein said. “We had two mediations and the last effort was in front of a certified employment lawyer who did a good job bridging the gap between the parties.”
One of the chief concerns of the employees who filed the suit involved required rest time, Rothstein said.  
He said most EMS employees work a full 24-hour shift at least once a week and during that time they are required to have eight-hours of designated sleep time.
If sleep is interrupted for work purposes, then they should be paid for the time they end up working, he said. And if for any reason they don’t receive at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep, he said employees should receive payment for a full 24 hours of work.
Many times employees were required to clean ambulances or fill out reports during the sleep time, and sleep was often interrupted by emergency calls, he said.
“It was a very interesting case for sure,” he said. “It was all about getting an uninterrupted night’s sleep.”
He also said EMS workers also contended they had to work from 8 a.m. one day to 8:15 a.m. the next morning, but were never paid for the extra 15-minute period.  
Another problem was the classification the county used to pay EMS workers, he said. Under the FLSA, employees who work more than 40 hours per week are eligible to receive overtime compensation.
But Rothstein said the county had instead been paying EMS workers by improperly using a firefighter exemption classification, meaning those employees must work 53 hours per week before getting paid overtime.
Using this exemption was misleading, Rothstein said, because the county could combine up to four work weeks and take an average. If an employee worked overtime in one week and fewer hours in another, they may not receive any overtime compensation, he said.
“There was a lot of fallout in the EMS department over this,” he said. “I think everyone involved is glad it’s over and that the county took the suit seriously.”
Last week, Willis said the case hinged on the overtime classification the county had been using for EMS workers, a classification he said the S.C. Department of Labor changed about 15 years ago.
“It was one of those things that Lancaster County just never changed,” Willis said. “A while back, we had our labor attorneys looking at fixing the issue, but then the lawsuit popped up and that started the process to make the changes.”
Budget amendment
With the settlement concluded, Willis said Lancaster County Council must now vote to distribute the funds.
He said council would vote Monday night (March 26) on an amendment to the county’s budget, allowing for the transfer of the money to the workers.
But with each side required to make tax payments as part of the settlement, council will discuss allocating an amount of $1.58 million to cover those costs, Willis said.
Willis said council will tack on the $1.5 million payout to an existing budget amendment ordinance that has already been read and approved twice by council members.
The ordinance in question – Ordinance No. 1132 – involves amending the budget to impose a fee for appeals to the construction board of appeals.
A public hearing for Ordinance No. 1132 was held March 12.
Willis said there will not be a new, separate ordinance to handle the settlement funds, and there will not be a full three readings or public hearing on the issue.
“The third reading will just be amended to include this as well,” Willis said.