Firefighters sue Fort Worth in overtime dispute

FORT WORTH -- The Fort Worth Professional Firefighters Association is suing the city over changes to overtime rules that affected pay for 21 firefighters who worked in the Fire Alarm Office, which handled 911 calls and dispatched personnel.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the 348th District Court, stems from a policy change by the city in January 2009 that the firefighters association said was made outside collective bargaining.

Before 2009, the Fire Department had paid time-and-a-half "even if the firefighter took time off for sick or vacation leave during the week," the suit says.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction preventing the city from making unilateral changes that violate the Fire and Police Employee Relations Act.

The suit also seeks overtime pay for the 21 firefighters for the time between when the policy was changed and when a new collective bargaining agreement was reached in April 2010.

The firefighters say the city had a duty to bargain in good faith.

"When this was brought to the attention of the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters, with whom we're affiliated, their board voted to file suit in order to uphold the requirements of Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code," said Jim Tate, president of the Fort Worth chapter.

"The suit basically says that the city of Fort Worth committed an unfair labor practice. This was for an approximate 15-month period and only affected 21 firefighters in the Fire Alarm Office, so there won't be a lot of back pay involved," Tate said.

City officials declined to comment.

When the city changed the overtime policy, the local firefighters association was not notified.

"The policy was a significant benefit to the firefighters because it is more generous than the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards," the suit says.

The association filed a grievance, and both sides eventually agreed to take the matter to arbitrator Norman Bennett.

On Dec. 14, Bennett denied the grievance but acknowledged "the right of firefighters to bargain collectively and the duty of the public employer to bargain in good faith would prohibit a unilateral change during negotiations."

But the lawsuit says Bennett denied the claim "because the unilateral change occurred prior to the effective date of the collective bargaining agreement, which provided the sole basis for his authority to decide disputes."

The firefighters association took the matter to court.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna