The Borough of Deal, New Jersey has proposed eliminating its three full-time firefighters on May 1, 2017 in an effort to curb spending. However the firefighters believe there is a more ominous reason behind the cuts. The Borough settled an overtime pay dispute with firefighters less than a month ago. The $28,933 settlement followed a US Department of Labor investigation into Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) violations.
The Mayor Samuel Cohen told the Asbury Park Press the decision to eliminate the paid firefighters was “definitely not in retaliation” for the firefighter’s overtime complaints. Cohen also added “we have nothing against the firefighters. It just doesn’t make any sense to spend that kind of money on three men sitting with very little to do.”
The firefighter’s attorney, Jim Mets, disagrees with the mayor. He called the “timing of the resolution to the Fair Labor Standards Act claim and the decision to take action and get rid of the firefighters, … very suspect[.]” According to Mets, the firefighters are considering filing an FLSA retaliation suit against the Borough.
The FLSA prohibits an employer from discriminating or retaliating against employees for asserting their FLSA rights. Experienced wage and hour attorneys caution employers to act cautiously when dealing with employees that have initiated or even cooperated with a wage and hour investigation or complaint. Changes to an employee’s status can be considered retaliation and very often the damages for retaliation will be significantly greater than the unpaid overtime!
Should the firefighters file suit in this case, the mayor and borough will have to answer a very difficult question: if it “doesn’t make any sense to spend that kind of money on three men sitting with very little to do”, why didn’t the borough make the move before the firefighters filed their FLSA claim?
Avoiding retaliation claims is one of many topics covered in depth at all our upcoming FLSA for Fire Department classes. Please consider joining us.