Chesterton Tribune



Firefighters suit prompts complaint from other departments over days off

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In February, Chesterton Fire Department Local 4600 of the International Association of Fire Fighters filed a six-count lawsuit in federal court against the Town of Chesterton, alleging--among other things--that for nine years the town failed to compensate firefighters appropriately for overtime.

The firefighters have subsequently been compensated for three of those years, after the mistake in overtime payments was discovered by the Clerk-Treasurer’s Office early in 2018.

But it’s the lawsuit’s third count which is stirring something like unrest among the town’s other municipal employees. Specifically, the suit alleges that the town breached its contract with Local 4600 when Fire Chief John Jarka changed the custom regarding Kelly days--otherwise known as reduction days--by requiring firefighters to schedule one of their four annual Kelly days at the beginning of each quarter. A Kelly day is a paid day off provided to firefighters to reduce the department’s overtime liability, and traditionally under CFD firefighters have been able to use those four days “the same as their vacation time or as needed,” according to the suit.

Jarka, the suit states, “unilaterally changed” the Kelly day policy “to greatly inhibit and restrict firefighters’ ability to use” those four annual days.

Never mind the suit’s contention--whether or not Jarka actually breached contract by requiring the prior scheduling of a Kelly day--for the town’s other municipal employees it came as disconcerting news not only that their colleagues in the CFD get four more paid days off than they do, but that the firefighters get any more paid days off at all.

At the Town Council’s meeting Tuesday night, Street Commissioner John Schnadenberg submitted a letter to members, in which the heads of the town’s other departments convey their employees’ unhappiness with that disparity.

Specifically, the employees want answers to these two questions:

--“Why are the Fire Department employees receiving an additional four days off ‘benefit’ that none of the other town employees is receiving?”

--And why, now that the firefighters are earning overtime pay for extra hours worked--per the Fair Labor Standards Act--“would the Fire Department employees continue to receive four additional paid days off?”

The letter concludes: “The signatures below identify those department heads who have been approached with these, or similar, questions and concerns. We recognize our responsibility to enlighten our council members, affording them time to prepare their response prior to town employees’ potentially attending council meetings or utilizing the social media to express their frustration with this issue. We welcome further discussion or clarification with you should you desire such.”

That letter was signed by Schnadenberg, Town Manager Bernie Doyle, Town Engineer/Building Commissioner / Stormwater Utility Superintendent Mark O’Dell, Clerk-Treasurer Stephanie Kuziela, and Utility Superintendent Dave Ryan.

The letter is dated April 30.

The council at Tuesday’s meeting did not address the letter’s concerns but did vote unanimously to take it under advisement.

For the record, in February, when asked by the Chesterton Tribune for comment, Associate Town Attorney Chuck Parkinson said this about Local 4600’s lawsuit: “Town of Chesterton has paid the firefighters in accordance with the law. On its own initiative, the town conducted a payroll audit and voluntarily corrected the payroll error. The payments to the firefighters exceed the town’s obligation. In addition, the firefighters continue to enjoy benefits not received by any other Chesterton employees. Despite this, the firefighters have filed suit against the town because they don’t like the way they are required to follow department rules on scheduling their generous time off. This lawsuit has no legal merit and the town is confident that it will be exposed as a groundless attempt to intimidate the town.”

Also for the record: during her campaign incoming Town Council Member Jennifer Fisher, I-5th, questioned incumbents’ good faith in treating with Local 4600 and was conspicuously endorsed by Local 4600; and incoming Town Council Member Bob Allison, D-3rd, is himself a volunteer member of the CFD.


Posted 11/15/2019




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