WASHINGTON - After eight months of negotiating, the District government is on the verge of paying $49 million in back overtime to hundreds of D.C. firefighters. It is the result of a 15-year fight that was ultimately won in court.
The $49 million is $2 million more than the city estimated it owed the firefighters back in January when Mayor Muriel Bowser agreed to settle the dispute.
The money is coming from surplus revenue the city has been collecting in recent months.
Sources familiar with the negotiations say the firefighter’s union and city attorneys are working on a final draft of the agreement, which could be signed as soon as next week.
According to the sources, the firefighters owed back overtime will receive one-time lump sum payments and have the right to appeal those payments if they believe the figures are incorrect.
D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who sits on the Public Safety Committee, said the money to pay the firefighters has already been set aside.
“We have estimates of money coming in and we get those quarterly, and the June estimates showed that we had over $100 million in addition to what we had expected,” she said. “So the money, the $49 million, was bracketed and set aside because we anticipated this agreement and now we have the money for it.”
Since the mid-90s when the city was in deep trouble and a federal financial control board ran the District government, overtime for some city workers was rolled back, and instead of getting time and a half, they were paid straight time.
It is a decision the firefighter’s union argued should have been rolled back when the control board was dissolved in 2001.
"The argument was: Did that authority not to pay overtime continue from the control board’s time until now? And the answer was when we litigated it – no," said Cheh.
She said each administration passed the problem along hoping for a different resolution.
"There were various times where we had uncertainties about our finances and so on, and as this loomed larger and larger as an obligation, I suppose folks were having their fingers crossed that maybe we won't have to pay it kind of thing,” said Cheh. “At some point, you have to say, ‘Okay, we've lost and now we have to pay up.’”
Accountants for the city have been reviewing timesheets and calculating the money now owed. With the one-time payment, it will mean some firefighters will be taking significant tax hits.
According to union president Ed Smith, as of last month, the firefighters finally began receiving time and a half for the overtime they worked.