Morgantown, firefighters hope to end 2 1/2 year legal battle over holiday backpay

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The two-and-a-half year battle between the city of Morgantown and International Firefighters Local 313 over holiday backpay goes before Judge Phillip Gaujot September 16.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the firefighters by Wheeling-based attorney Teresa Toriseva, says Morgantown violated state code by compensating firefighters for 12 hours of time off for each holiday when shifts are actually 24 hours.

Officials in Charleston negotiated a $1.7 million settlement with firefighters over the same issue in January of 2020. That settlement covered about 10 years of backpay for more than 160 firefighters and took about seven months to finalize.

“We have been trying since March of 2019, March of 2019 it’s stunning how much money has been spent fighting about since then,” Toriseva said,” I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know it’s a lot.”

The court date is scheduled following two-and-a-half years of litigation and four failed mediation attempts with four different professional mediators at taxpayer expense, according to Toriseva.

“There are really legal issues they are holding to that we think they’re very, very wrong about and they’re adamant that they’re right,” Toriseva said,” We’ve won those issue in Brooke County, here in the northern panhandle, in the eastern panhandle in Berkley County.”

In Morgantown, the city has acknowledged the incorrect holiday pay calculations and passed an ordinance in February of 2020 to align pay policy with state code.

“They want to parse and they minimize, so they can minimize how much backpay they have to pay the firefighters,” Toriseva said.

About one month after the most recent negotiations on backpay broke down, Morgantown city manager Kim Haws announced a policy change that eliminated shift differential pay resulting in a $2,000 per year pay decrease for 52 firefighters. Haws said the policy change was made on the advice of a consultant in order to ensure personnel rules are applied equally. Members of International Firefighters Local 313 announced a vote of no confidence following the policy change.

” The problem is, this ongoing battle might be appropriate between a big corporate defendant and a private citizen that has some beef with them,” Toriseva said,” But, this is a fire department and a city.”

The city has offered 18 hours, but firefighters have not moved from what is allowed by state statute- five years of corrected backpay taking into account the actual 24-hour shifts worked by the 52 firefighters.

“It really does come down to this eight hours difference and parsing the difference with firefighters who are trying to get five years of backpay even though the department has been cheated out of it for decades,” Toriseva said.

Toriseva also represented Charleston firefighters in their lawsuit.