As Orchard Park prepared to counter a lawsuit by some of the town’s police officers demanding back pay for the time it takes to put on their uniforms, the police chief agreed to be filmed taking his gear off and on.
“It took no more than a minute or two minutes,” said Orchard Park Town Councilman Mike Sherry, who retired from the Police Department as assistant chief a few years before the lawsuit was filed.
The attorney representing the officers said it could take them 15 minutes before and after a shift. When those costs were tallied, they added up to a half an hour a day.
“That’s 2½ hours a week. So that’s not petty,” said Paul Weiss.
The case never went to trial, but 26 Orchard Park police officers, a mix of retirees and current employees, will each collect between $100 and $3,300 in wages, including back pay for time they spent putting on uniforms. It is part of a $210,000 a settlement negotiated by a lawyer who has spent some of the last 15 years suing government entities for failing to interpret overtime law correctly.
“In my mind that’s a fraction of what they were entitled to,” Weiss said of the officers who earned $53,000 of the settlement.
Sherry disagreed. He likes to think he would not have agreed to join the officers in the complaint.
“There’s no way it takes 15 minutes to doff and don your equipment,” he said.
The Orchard Park complaint began in 2009 as a lawsuit asking for $2 million in wages. Last month, it became the last of about a dozen suits to be wrapped up from the ones Weiss filed in response to the federal government’s 1986 ruling that municipalities are obliged to follow its rules about calculating overtime.
Weiss has negotiated other agreements with employees and government employers: Erie County, Buffalo Board of Education, the Town of Tonawanda and the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority.
He describes this work as, “seeking to vindicate the rights of all different types of employees where the employers have not compensated them correctly.”
Orchard Park Supervisor Patrick Keem chastised the “well-compensated” officers for going to great lengths to get paid for getting dressed and undressed.
“It can’t be take, take, take all the time,” he said in frustration Monday.
Weiss disagreed with Keem’s perspective and offered more detail.
The town failed to calculate financial advantage, like seniority, when figuring overtime pay. Officers in the suit said they were not paid for doing reports after their shift ended. The time officers putting on and off their uniforms adds up to a substantial number, Weiss said.
Over a year, he said, “that’s 130 hours that you haven’t compensated people for.”
Since the lawsuit was filed, the department has changed the way work shifts are recorded. When the suit was filed, officers wrote down the time their shifts began and ended.
For the last two years, a new computerized system logs officers in and out with a fingerprint scan as they come into work. To address concerns raised in the lawsuit, the town does not count the first seven minutes logged before the start and after the end of an officer’s shift. Once an officer goes over that seven-minute window the time is eligible for pay.