ERWIN — Unicoi County and the Unicoi County Emergency Communications District have been named as defendants in a collective action civil lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Greeneville in which former and current dispatchers with Unicoi County 911 are seeking overtime pay they feel they are owed.
The matter was first addressed at a Dec. 5 meeting of the Unicoi County 911 Service Board. At that meeting, Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Sue Jean Wilson said that when the county’s emergency dispatchers were switched from working eight-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts, more than $33,000 in overtime was accumulated.
Unicoi County 911 Director Patsy Ledford previously said Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris made the decision to place the dispatchers on 12-hour shifts in July 2010 in effort to save the county money by placing them on shifts similar to those of county deputies. However, officials with the County Technical Assistance Service later advised county officials that the pay cycle deputies fall under does not apply to dispatchers and the overtime accumulated by the dispatchers while working under the 12-hour shifts would have to be paid.
The 911 Service Board voted at that time to pay half the overtime owed to the dispatchers with the county to pay the other half. But when the matter came up for a vote at the Dec. 19 meeting of the Unicoi County Commission, several commissioners stated that they would like to have more information. The commission, by a 5-3 vote, rejected a motion to have the county pay half the accumulated overtime. It also voted to table a budget amendment relating to the 911 Service Board’s previous vote.
The eight plaintiffs named in the complaint filed Thursday are seeking unpaid compensation, an equal amount of liquidated damages, costs and attorneys’ fees. Robert L. Bowman, a Knoxville-based Kramer Rayson LLP attorney who is representing the plaintiffs, said that under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the county could be responsible for double damages because it did not act in “good faith.”
“My clients are disappointed that Unicoi County has not lived up to its obligations under the FLSA, and we are looking forward to presenting our case to the District Court,” Bowman said.
The complaint alleges that the defendants in the case “intentionally and repeatedly” under-reported hours for non-exempt employees and required the plaintiffs and others to only report eight hours of work per day even though they worked more than eight hours a day and 40 hours per week. The complaint also states other employees who worked for the defendants three years prior to the filing of the complaint can opt into the lawsuit if they were not properly paid for all hours worked and overtime pay for time worked in excess of 40 hours.
“During the three-year period prior to the filing of the Complaint, Defendants committed violations of the FLSA by requiring and/or suffering and/or permitting their employees, including Plaintiffs, to work in excess of 40 hours per work week without receiving overtime pay at at rate of one-and-one-half times their regular rates of pay as required by law. Additionally, Defendants failed to pay Plaintiffs, and those similarly situated to Plaintiffs, for all hours which they worked for or on behalf of Defendants,” the complaint states.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said the matter, which he referred to as an “unfortunate event,” was originally slated to appear on the agenda for the Unicoi County Commission’s Jan. 23 meeting.
“We were going to put that on the agenda, but this takes it to a whole different level,” Lynch said.
Instead, Lynch said the subject will likely be addressed on that date in a client/attorney meeting between members of the Unicoi County Commission and County Attorney Doug Shults.
Ledford previously said dispatchers have returned to eight-hour shifts and no overtime has been accumulated since.