The union representing Oro Valley police officers was reviewing last week whether to file suit against the town this week seeking more than $1 million in back pay for officers required to carry pagers that put them on call and made them available for duty during nonregular hours.
The Fraternal Order of Police filed a notice of claim against the town Aug. 7 seeking treble damages totaling more than $940,000 in "pager pay" for 34 non-exempt law enforcement employees.
The lawsuit stems from a policy adopted by the Town Council on March 7, 2001 providing $1 an hour for all nonexempt or hourly paid law enforcement employees for the period during which they were on call and required to be prepared to work during nonregular hours.
According to the FOP claim, 34 officers were entitled to $128 a week per officer, or a total of $313,344, for the 72 weeks they were on call up to the time of the filing of the union claim. The union, however, is seeking treble damages, or a total of $940,032 at the time of the filing. Since then, the total has risen to about $1.2 million.
"Oro Valley issued departmental pagers to several non-exempt law enforcement employees," the FOP claim states. "These non-exempt law enforcement employees were directed by Oro Valley to wear their pagers off duty so that law enforcement employees would be available for call-in by Oro Valley.
"Accordingly, as ordered, these non-exempt law enforcement employees wore their pagers off duty and thereby made themselves available to Oro Valley. These law enforcement employees were effectively placed 'on call.' However, these non-exempt sworn law enforcement employees did not receive the $1 per hour for being placed 'on call' as required."
Town officials said the suit may stem from a misinterpretation of the policy approved by the council.
Human Resources Director Jeff Grant said the on call pay policy applies only to about a dozen employees townwide who are selected by their department heads and approved by the town manager. Those on the assigned list must be able to be at an assigned incident scene within 45 minutes of the page.
The current assigned on call employee list includes three traffic accident reconstruction technicians, one detective, one forensic and property identification technician and a police information officer, as well as employees of the town's Public Works Department, water utility, Parks and Recreation Division and other departments that might be needed to address emergency situations, Grant said.
Other employees have been given pagers as a courtesy, Grant said, but while they might be paged, these employees are not required to respond to the page as those on the on call list are.
Becky Mendez, Police Department public information officer, said the pager merely gives supervisors a better chance of contacting employees away from home and makes it easier for employees to keep in touch with their families. There is no requirement for police officers to wear or respond to their pagers if they aren't on the call list, she said.
Councilmember and former Police Chief Werner Wolff described the filing of the pager pay claim as a "self-destructive action" that in his opinion will cost the FOP a lot of support from the council in the months ahead.
In July the council adopted an $84.5 million budget for the 2002-2003 fiscal year that included money for the hiring of 12 new employees, including eight police in anticipation of the town's fulfillment of its annexation plans, a 1.5 percent cost of living increase for all workers, a 4 percent advancement in grade adjustment for police, changes that will allow police officers to cash in accrued sick time sooner and merit increases of up to 4 percent for all civilian employees.
Changes in police pay came after lobbying by the Fraternal Order of Police and support from residents at council meetings.
The sick time pay and grade advancement adjustments for police and merit increases for civilian workers were upward adjustments made by the council following Town Manager Chuck Sweet's recommended budget that added $184,000 to the adopted budget.
The council also agreed to review the possibility of further upward salary adjustments in six months.
Wolff said when that time comes, he may have to "look a little closer" at FOP requests for raises in light of the pager pay claims, which he surmised "came as a surprise to everyone on the council."
Wolff said no one from the FOP had ever come to him to talk about the handling of pager pay despite his experience as the former chief. Asked why he thought that happened, Wolff responded "That's a damned good question. I wish I knew the answer. I think it would have been the smart thing to do."
Neither Det. Herbert Williams, FOP president, nor the group's attorney, Phil S. Flemming, of the Yen, Pilch and Komadina law firm, could be reached for comment. Oro Valley Police Chief Danny Sharp also could not be reached but relayed information through Mendez.