July 11, 2008
Lane County, Ore., Jail Deputies Are Paid $475,000 to Settle Overtime Lawsuit
By Bill Bishop, The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.
Jul. 10--While 15 minutes is not a long time, when it involved about 100 Lane County sheriff's deputies working daily overtime for almost eight years, it added up to a $475,000 bill for the county.
The suit alleged that the practice violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, but it wasn't all that simple, according to representatives for both sides.
The dispute grew out of a stalemate in contract talks between the county and the Lane County Peace Officers Association during the administration of former Sheriff Jan Clements. Under contract bargaining terms, the impasse had to be settled by an arbitrator who could choose only one side's total proposal.
The sheriff's proposal won out. But it contained language requiring the unpaid briefings, while allowing pay for a portion of the deputies' lunch hour, Lane County Counsel Liane Richardson said. The lunchtime pay provision would allow supervisors to call deputies to work quickly if needed during lunch breaks, Association President Les Sieczkowski said.
But from the outset the contract language was dubious from a legal standpoint and was poorly understood, Richardson said.
"You can't require people to work and not pay them," she said. "But you can actually not pay them for their lunches."
To further complicate the matter, some deputies worked through their lunch breaks without reporting the time to their supervisor, she said.
"If you work, you need to be paid for it. The sheriff's office was always willing to pay. They didn't want their employees working overtime without permission," Richardson said. "They didn't know they were working overtime until the lawsuit was filed."
The settlement fairly compensated jail staff, paying the involved deputies between $1,000 and $3,000 each. It also removed the illegal language from the contract, Sieczkowski said.
"We're glad the new administration (of Sheriff Russ Burger) was able to settle it. We're glad it's over," Sieczkowski said.
In the end, both sides were satisfied, Richardson said.
"We don't believe we did anything wrong," she said. "I don't think the employees felt we had done anything wrong. They just felt they should be reimbursed for working through lunch, which they should be."
The payment was one of two recent settlements of lawsuits involving the sheriff's office.
In the other suit, the county paid $15,000 each to Spence and Vicki Slater, a married couple who alleged that sheriff's managers retaliated against them after Vicki Slater complained that a manager transmitted inappropriate sexual content over the office e-mail.
In a court document, the county's lawyer said an internal investigation showed that the e-mails were not inappropriate. County officials also deny that managers retaliated against Vicki or Spence Slater.
In the settlement, neither side admitted fault. Terms of the settlement also provided specific job assignment and performance evaluation procedures to assure managers other than those involved in the dispute supervise the couple in the future.
The settlement requires that neither side comment further.
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