Waterford firefighter seeks payment for 30 years of volunteer hours

Waterford — A longtime town firefighter recently filed a claim seeking payment for all hours worked as a volunteer over the last three decades, igniting potentially lengthy negotiations at a time when Waterford and other towns are shaking up fire services to address increasing concerns over manpower and labor laws.

In an April 16 letter to the town, obtained by The Day in a Freedom of Information Act request, Kevin Ziolkovski formally requested "financial compensation for all hours worked as a volunteer firefighter ... from Jan. 1, 1989, to the present."

Ziolkovski, a 57-year-old Quaker Hill Fire Co. volunteer since 1979 who's worked part-time shifts since the early 1980s, cited potential violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the 1938 law that shields workers from missing out on compensation by barring town employees from performing "volunteer services for the same entity by which they are employed."

Ziolkovski filed his letter in accordance with the state Department of Labor's statement of claim for wages form, asking the town to contact him "as to when I might expect payment so that I may accurately advise" the DOL.

Several towns for decades have employed part-time firefighters who also are volunteers conducting the same services at private, independent volunteer firehouses. Whether the private firehouses count as separate entities or municipal employers remains a matter of debate among attorneys, town officials and firefighters.

But on the advice of lawyers looking to comply with FLSA and avoid ongoing liabilities, officials in Montville and Waterford recently told firefighters they can't be both part-timers and volunteers — at least not in the same firehouse. The Salem Board of Selectmen reviewed the matter in executive session on Tuesday, and East Lyme officials are discussing the issue with town attorneys.

'Tough decisions'

The filing from Ziolkovski, who now works for Groton Utilities after almost 20 years as a full-time firefighter for Groton City, comes with a bit of irony amid ongoing debate over the FLSA. Like many firefighters, Ziolkovski disagrees with recent interpretations of FLSA, and he doesn't actually believe the town of Waterford owes him a dime. He argues state law appears to conflict with federal law, because 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.

"Someone needs a hard and fast decision on this so we can move on," said Ziolkovski, who estimated there are as many as 50 volunteers who've also worked part-time in Waterford. He said in an average year, a firefighter may volunteer "anywhere from a couple hundred hours to 1,000 or more."

When asked why he's seeking payment for hours he willingly volunteered for years, he responded that town officials, in public meetings over the last several months, "are the ones who said they owe me money. I didn't go to them and say, 'You're in violation.' They said, 'We need to change the way we're doing things.'"

Ziolkovski, who ran for first selectman as a write-in candidate in 2015, said when the town last week told firefighters they could no longer serve as both part-timers and volunteers, he stuck with volunteering.

"There's a lot of my friends facing tough decisions," he said. "We're going to lose officers, we're going to lose part-time people who choose to volunteer, and volunteers who choose to be part-time. It's going to leave us short-handed. It's a tough situation."

'Tip of the iceberg or whole iceberg'

Waterford First Selectman Dan Steward said it was "the first time we've seen a letter of this sort," and that Fire Services Director Bruce Miller and attorneys were trying to ascertain how many volunteer hours Ziolkovski worked during the period of his claim. While tax forms show how many hours Ziolkovski worked as a part-timer, "it's not clear at all" how many volunteer hours he may have racked up, Steward said.

Ziolkovski said for the last several years, paid and volunteer hours have been tracked through software at the individual firehouses. But "in a previous world, we filled out a paper copy and sent it to the fire marshal's office. I don't know that the town has records that go back 30 years."

Steward declined to comment further when asked if the town would fight the claim, saying the matter was in the hands of attorneys and officials.

"They have to figure out what's right," he said. "This might be a tip of the iceberg or it might be the whole iceberg. Even if we come up with X amount of hours, he might say it's Y." Negotiations might go on for a while, he added.

The town received warning of FLSA violations back in 1989, according to Ziolkovski, who cited public statements by Miller.

Messages left with Miller and the state Department of Labor were not immediately responded to Tuesday afternoon. Steward confirmed the town was made aware of FLSA issues several years ago.

No claims in nearby towns yet

Montville Mayor Ron McDaniel, Salem First Selectman Kevin Lyden and East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson said their towns had not seen similar claims.

"The FLSA issue is affecting every community," Lyden said. "We have to get it right and get it right with our volunteers and paid staff, whether part-time paid or full-time. It's causing some anxiety, but we'll get it right."

In East Lyme, seven full-timers and a couple dozen volunteers, several of whom work part-time shifts, serve the Niantic and Flanders fire stations.

"We are talking to our lawyers about what we think might be the interpretation of the law," Nickerson said on Tuesday. "We have not created a policy yet."

The structural shakeups in departments across the region come as towns are looking to ramp up staffing in the wake of dwindling volunteer numbers and increased emergency calls.

Ziolkovski blamed what he described as Waterford's lackluster incentives — compared to volunteer stipends and pensions available in Montville and Norwich, respectively — and the volunteer firehouses themselves for inadequate recruitment efforts over the years.

"In the '90s and 2000s, we didn't do a great job introducing ourselves to new residents in the community," he said. "Back in the early days, people understood that the town is protected by volunteer fire companies and you should go right down and join because they're protecting your house. Now people think Waterford is a big rich town with all these fire services and say, 'I don't need to help them, I just need to call them.'"

Day Staff Writer Mary Biekert contributed to this report.

b.kail@theday.com

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