The union representing Webster Groves firefighters has filed grievances against the city over a recent change in the way fire department hourly salaries are calculated, as well as the city’s military leave policy. City officials, however, are pushing back.
Last month, the city of Webster Groves announced it had discovered “significant errors” in fire department compensation over the past two years and would be changing the way fire department salaries are calculated.
The new formula, which went into effect on Aug. 28, results in lower hourly pay for some firefighters than in past years. The city contends that under the previous formula, fire department personnel were overpaid $136,244, while 21 fire department personnel were underpaid by $21,143. The figures only represent a two-year period, since July 2019, though the formula has been in place for many years prior to that.
The city said no collection of amounts overpaid will be sought, and those underpaid will be issued checks for what they are owed.
The “errors” were caught after a review by accounting firm Rognan and Associates. The city said the core of the error lies in the computation of the hourly pay rate from the established annual salary.
“For many years, as a matter of practice, the whole cost of scheduled work hours of the fire service was not included in this computation, thereby allowing annual salaries to exceed the salary ranges established by the city council ordinance,” City Manager Marie Peoples said in a written statement.
But firefighters — and two former city leaders who oversaw finances — say the previous formula for determining hourly rates for fire department personnel was not in error. They say it is also a formula commonly used by the majority of municipalities in St. Louis County.
But Peoples reiterated the city’s need for the change.
“Rognan and Associates has experience in fire department pay matters and their report outlined the errors and recommended the salary schedule the city will be following,” she said. “The city regrets this has occurred and we recognize it must be remedied, which is why we have begun practices to correct the errors.”
The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2665 contends that in changing the formula, the city has violated the current contract in place between the city and the firefighters’ union. The union filed a grievance on Aug. 18, but is now requesting arbitration since it says the city denied the items listed in the grievance.
Peoples said that “arbitration is never desired, but it is a natural part of the process,” and the city will participate and represent the taxpayers’ interests in an accurate application of compensation policy and the law.
Military Leave Policy
In addition to the pay issue, the Webster Groves firefighters’ union has also filed a grievance over the city’s military leave policy. The grievance was filed by a member of the Webster Groves Fire Department who is being deployed to serve overseas, according to IAFF Local 2665.
“The nature of this grievance is related to a loss of compensation to members of the military when they deploy for an extended period of time,” said John Youngblood, a representative of IAFF Local 2665.
Youngblood said the full benefit, prior to being reduced, allowed employees of Webster Groves to have their military pay supplemented by the city for up to six months in an amount not to exceed their regular city pay. The benefit was approved by the previous city manager in 2016.
The firefighter who filed the grievance previously received the full benefit when he was deployed overseas in 2017.
“The current agreement in place between the Webster Groves firefighters and the city references the rules, regulations and ordinances that were in place at the time the agreement was enacted. The approved military leave policy from 2016 was in place when the agreement was ratified,” Youngblood said.
The contract further states that should the city desire to change any policies or procedures, the fire chief will present the proposed changes to the union via the Joint Labor Management Team for discussion.
“The union was never notified of the city’s desire to amend the military leave policy, and we find the city’s decision to amend this policy impudent and appalling,” Youngblood said.
Peoples defended the city’s actions, noting an employee’s military leave of absence pay from the city is not to exceed 120 hours in a fiscal year. She said during a period of military leave in 2017, the fire department employee who filed the grievance was paid beyond the hours allowed within the policy.
“Previously, the city allowed payment over the stated policy at a cost of around $15,000,” People’s said. “Upon the employee’s request to again pay beyond what the policy allows, I determined it would not be a prudent use of public taxpayers’ money to grant additional paid leave beyond the stated policy allowance.”
She added that the request, if granted, would have equated to roughly $18,000 in an extra benefit.
“Every employee is valued, as is military service,” Peoples said. “As city manager, I must consider the best good for the entire organization and what is an appropriate use of taxpayer funds. In this instance, the city policy that is in place for all employees was followed.”
Nearly a dozen firefighters attended the Webster Groves City Council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 7, but none addressed the council.
Representing IAFF Local 2665, Youngblood said the union hopes the city will honor and follow the collective bargaining agreement that is in place.
“We hope the city will reconsider their decision to amend the policies, both of which have an adverse impact on the membership,” he said.