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Santa Rosa firefighters are suing the city in federal court, claiming they’ve been systematically cheated out of overtime for years.

The city’s 118 unionized firefighters say the city is improperly calculating their overtime pay, and they now want to recoup their losses for the past three years, plus interest, costs and attorney’s fees. The suit could cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars based on rough calculations.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on March 27. The two sides began mediation last week and have another session scheduled for May 9.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act, the law under which the firefighters are suing, allows employees to recover lost wages going back three years.

The case could widen, though, as the complaint suggests the city has similarly underpaid police officers and asks the court to allow them to join the case, which is known as a collective action suit, similar to a class action.

Tim Aboudara, local president of the firefighters’ union, and Rhonda McKinnon, the city’s human resources director, both declined to comment Friday, citing the confidentiality agreement in place during mediation efforts.

The Fire Department spends about $20 million a year on salaries, while the Police Department spends about $30 million. Most firefighters make well over $100,000 annually, including tens of thousands of dollars in overtime and other special pay.

Firefighters’ salaries have increased more than 30 percent over the past decade, but their contributions to retirement costs have also increased, according to city records.

Detailed information about the overtime calculations was not immediately available Friday, with most City Hall offices closed.

Mastagni Holstedt, the Sacramento law firm representing the 118 firefighters — all members of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 1401 — specializes in employment law and claims to have recovered millions of dollars for California employees.

The suit claims that the city has long miscalculated what constitutes “regular pay” for firefighters. That figure is important because it is what influences rates for other types of pay, particularly overtime. For example, if a firefighter’s regular pay is $50 an hour, his or her overtime rate would be $75 per hour. But if the regular pay should have been based on a $60 rate, the overtime rate would rise to $90 an hour.

The suit claims that the city failed to take into account two types of earnings many firefighters receive when calculating regular pay.

These include “holiday in lieu pay,” which is meant to compensate firefighters for the fact that many have to work holidays. That pay is received every year in early December and amounts to 168 hours of pay. A firefighter who makes $50 an hour, for example, would be paid $8,400 in holiday pay.

The other pay at issue is the 24 hours of “sick leave incentive pay” that goes to firefighters who use less than 56 hours of sick time each year.

The city has been paying the firefighters those two types of pay, but they’ve been excluding them from the calculation of regular pay, according to the suit. This has led to overtime being systematically underpaid, as well as other payments that are based on regular pay, the suit claims.

This includes the payout of “compensatory time off,” which is time off that can be taken instead of overtime pay. Employees can accumulate such time off and cash it out when they retire.

The suit claims the city’s actions were “willful” and have continued since firefighters originally raised the issue.

The City Council is expected to have another closed-door briefing on the case Tuesday.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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