Fight for firefighter pay continues

Firefighters in Morgantown are concerned as new policies are enacted by the city to comply with a new state law.

The measure, sponsored by state Sen. Mike Oliverio, R-Monongalia, requires municipalities to pay firefighters during holidays for their entire shift, even if it spans two calendar days, or give them equal time off.

Morgantown firefighters and their attorney Teresa Toriseva have been in litigation against the city since 2019 over its pay policy that does not match the West Virginia code setting the rules for civil service employees. Firefighters say the city’s pay policy only accounted for 16 hours instead of the 24-hour directive in the Wage and Payment Collection Act (WPCA).

A June 11 memo to firefighters from the city manager called the measure an unfunded mandate that will require a reduction in minimum crew sizes and an increase in fire fees for residents.

International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 313 President Chuck Campbell said the firefighters love their jobs and community but believe the city should follow the law when it comes to firefighter pay. After nearly five years of litigation and costs, Campbell put into words on WAJR’s “Talk of the Town,” what the firefighters are thinking.

“My interpretation of that memo is almost as if the city administration is blaming the firefighters for having to do this and having to raise the fire service fee to accomplish this,” Campbell said.

Oliverio said it’s possible the administration should examine budget priorities to ensure two of the most important obligations elected officials have to the public — police and fire protection.

“Focus on your priorities — police protection and fire service — because these are among of the most important responsibilities you have,” Oilverio said. “Do the kinds of things so you can reduce spending in the budget to fund these priorities.”

The 15-crew minimum staffing requirement comes from section 1710 by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) setting guidelines for effective and efficient organization and deployment of fire suppression operations. NFPA 1710 is not law, but the guideline for minimum staffing levels to “protect citizens and the health and safety of fire department employees.”

“It puts less staffing on the scene of emergency and it also puts into question the safety of the firefighters on the scene,” Campbell said.

Oliverio cited cost-saving efforts by Star City and Granville by aligning municipal elections with the state and county. Oliverio said he has not talked to elected officials or members of the Morgantown administration, but would advise them to look at the budget and work with firefighters to solve the problem.

“These are things that Morgantown needs to do to reduce expenses in areas that are not important and fund the things that are priorities and are the principal responsibilities of a municipality,” Oliverio said.

Since the initial lawsuit was filed five years ago, at least three mediation sessions between the parties and court appearances have resulted in no solution. The case went to the West Virginia Supreme Court, where Justices agreed with firefighters that their wages are covered under the WPCA and sent the case for the claims back to circuit court where it remains.

“I’m not going to say we have perfect solutions, but we do have solutions that could be put on the table to a lot of these issues,” Campbell said. “Working collectively we can come up with an answer. Unfortunately the city doesn’t want to provide that seat at the table.”