Hundreds of Fort Worth firefighters have been overpaid since 2014. Now, the union representing department employees is trying to force change within the city through arbitration.
“We want the city to make it where we can read our checks and have a system we can count on,” IAFF 440 President Michael Glynn said.
At issue is the complicated math behind calculating firefighters’ paychecks, and a city HR system that has had trouble adjusting salary and incentive changes over the years. In total, the city has overpaid firefighters by $236,288.
The city has started using payment plans to deduct overpayments from future paychecks, but union members are adamant the current system should be fixed before they enter into any sort of long-term repayment agreement.
After IAFF 440 filed a list of grievances against the city’s handling of the situation, both parties made their cases before a neutral arbitrator on Feb. 28 and March 1. The arbitrator’s decision is expected at the end of the month.
“The guys are frustrated about their pay,” Fire Chief Jim Davis said. “I’m sympathetic to that as fire chief, but it’s above my pay grade.”
Taxpayer money erroneously slipped into, out of firefighter paychecks
In 2010, the city began using the PeopleSoft Payroll System. While city officials tout the PeopleSoft system as far more efficient than the city’s previous system, which was largely paper based, it has struggled to adapt to changing bargaining agreements and laws affecting pay rates.
An August report to council members said the changing payment landscape resulted in “an increasingly complex compensation system which has led to embedded programming errors.” These included both overpayments and underpayments. While other city departments have had occasional payroll errors, the fire department has borne the brunt of the damage.
“The reason given for that was basically what everyone called the ‘complexity of the firefighter payroll,’ ” Davis said.
Glynn said firefighters first started noticing significant problems with their paychecks about 2014. Unlike most city employees, Fort Worth firefighters are authorized to work 53 hours per week before earning overtime. In addition, firefighters can qualify for a variety of incentive payments depending on the scope of their work.
With more than 900 firefighters in the department, settling disputed pay for individual incentives can get complicated quickly.
“Admittedly, our pay is a little confusing, but there are departments across our great country that seem to be able to pay their firefighters without issue,” Glynn said.
Paycheck disputes handled by city administrators, not fire department
When paycheck irregularities are identified, the task of recollecting money falls to the city administration rather than the fire department itself.
“No one is questioning whether a refund of taxpayer money is warranted or not,” Davis said.
The best method to secure that refund is up for debate. Davis and Glynn have been in communication since last summer, trying to find a solution that is amenable to all parties.
Under the union’s bargaining agreement, if a grievance is submitted to the fire chief but not resolved, the union can then submit the matter to arbitration. Both Davis and Glynn extended talks over several months in hopes of avoiding arbitration, but ultimately Glynn felt it was required in order to see real progress.
“I’ve got multiple firefighters who created their own spreadsheets to work from, so they can reconcile their own checks,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to do that.”
Letting the overpayments go uncollected is not an option, per the city’s legal department. The move would be classified as “gifting public funds,” which is not allowable. The firefighters aren’t opposed to repayment, but they want an assurance that mistakes like this won’t happen again, Glynn said.
Additionally, the union believes firefighters have a right to individually negotiate their payment plans, a belief the city does not share. When firefighters who were overpaid were initially identified, they were sent a letter stating the city’s intention to deduct $50 from each paycheck until the amount was paid back in full. If employees had undue hardships, Davis said, they could approach him to ask for a smaller deduction.
“The city felt that the law was on their side to do that because it was taxpayer money, and they were the employer,” he said.
In response to the payment issues raised thus far, the city has commissioned an outside review of the payroll system, which flagged five concerns; two related to system configuration, two related to business processes and one related to naming conventions. It created a task force to address those concerns and identify potential payroll solutions.
“They’re spending a lot of money, and using a lot of hours, trying to recover this money,” Glynn said. “Even some of the council members spoke to it in the council sessions in August, trying to try to do the math themselves. Are you spending nickels to pick up pennies?”
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.