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Labor laws force shakeup of Montville fire services

Montville — Town officials looking to comply with federal labor laws recently altered a long-standing practice employed by many fire companies across the state, telling volunteer firefighters who also work paid part-time shifts that they cannot serve the same firehouse in both paid and volunteer capacities.

Earlier this month, law firm Halloran & Sage said in an email to Mayor Ron McDaniel that the Fair Labor Standards Act bars town employees from performing "volunteer services for the same entity by which they are employed," potentially creating a situation ripe for FLSA violations at each of the town's four volunteer fire companies.

At least eight volunteer firefighters, including some officers and two chiefs, also have worked part-time shifts for the last several years. But Montville, Waterford and other towns recently have revisited labor laws and staffing concerns, partly inspired by Bozrah after that town earlier this year reached a firefighter hiring agreement a year after concerns cropped up about potential FLSA violations.

Even if firefighters in the past willingly agreed to both volunteer and cover some part-time shifts, the U.S. Department of Labor has said that "even when there is no evidence of coercion ... allowing paid employees of a nonprofit organization to perform the same type of services for their employer on an uncompensated, volunteer basis would in effect allow employees to waive their rights to compensation under the FLSA."

Because the Department of Labor says employees cannot waive FLSA rights, a volunteer firefighter could be entitled to payment for volunteer hours if his or her volunteer duties for the town are precisely the same as when he or she is working for the town part-time.

Earlier this month, town officials told the eight firefighters to pick just one category moving forward: volunteer or part-timer. But McDaniel sought a clarifying opinion from Halloran & Sage, and the law firm this past week recommended that "part-time firefighters work at one department for wages and then volunteer their services at another department without compensation."

"Since each department is its own separate corporate entity, we believe this will not be an issue with the Department of Labor," the attorneys wrote.

"This way they can belong to their local station as a volunteer and it gives them an opportunity to work part-time at another station," McDaniel said Thursday.

McDaniel added that based on a volunteer firefighter's level of training and the number of calls they respond to, they are eligible for stipends under the Volunteer Firefighters Relief Fund. But Halloran & Sage said the U.S. Department of Labor would find it illegal for a part-time firefighter to receive stipends from the town "for their volunteer efforts for the same, or similar, services." So firefighters that serve both as part-timers and volunteers would not collect the usual stipends for volunteer time, McDaniel said.

Keith Truex, Chesterfield Company's chief and one of the eight volunteers who's worked part-time shifts for several years, said some firefighters may not "necessarily agree" with the recent legal opinion. Truex said some firefighters have argued that state law appears to conflict with federal law, in that municipal contracts in Connecticut cannot prohibit town-paid firefighters or emergency personnel from serving as active members of a volunteer fire department in the town in which they reside during personal time.

Messages left with the state and U.S. Department of Labor were not immediately responded to.

Truex said neither he nor two volunteers in his department who have worked part-time were interested in working in other departments.

"We did it to make sure the shifts were covered at our station," Truex said Friday. "It's not like a part-time firefighter makes a lot of money."

In Waterford — where officials looking to address staffing, command structure and qualification concerns are proposing to create a town fire department under which its five volunteer companies would operate — First Selectman Dan Steward said town officials and attorneys also were discussing some of the same labor issues recently.

Steward added that he believed Montville's attorneys interpreted the labor laws correctly, but noted "I've got volunteer chiefs who work part-time shifts," and if part-time work must be performed at another station, "maintaining that separation is very difficult."

Montville Fire Marshal and Emergency Management Director Bill Bundy said the "situation is being looked at through the office of the mayor and counsel. As department heads, we're maintaining the staffing and there's been no gap in coverage. We're supplementing volunteers with the current allotment of part-time and full-time staff."

Montville currently employs 10 full-time firefighters, and McDaniel said the town applied for a grant that could lead to the hiring of two additional firefighters.

McDaniel said to date "there has been no uptick in overtime as a result of the volunteer/part-time issue."

Overtime has cost the town between about $112,000 and $147,000 annually over the last five years, with McDaniel noting the fluctuations are "more due to attrition and rehiring lags and coverage for paid time off or worker's compensation."


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