(CN) - Los Angeles must pay its dispatchers and helicopter paramedics three years of double overtime for calling them firefighters, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
Dozens of fire dispatchers and paramedics assigned to ambulance helicopters claimed that the city knowingly misclassified them as being "engaged in fire protection" so it would not have to pay them regular overtime compensation of time and a half for all hours worked in excess 40 hours. As firefighters, the employees were exempted from Fair Labor Standards Act overtime rules and instead had to work 212 hours over 28 days to receive overtime.
Two of several cases challenging the classification - Tina Haro et al. v. City of Los Angeles and Juan Achan et al. v. City of Los Angeles - were consolidated for appeal after U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall ruled for the employees in Los Angeles.
The city had argued that the classification made sense because the employees were clearly engaged an important support role to actual fire suppression, but Judge Consuelo remained unconvinced. She cited a prior ruling in the 9th Circuit that defined firefighters as only those who "actively and physically fight fire," and granted the employees summary judgment.
Consuelo also found the city liable for double damages going back three years, rather than the usual two years, because it had known that it was misclassifying the employees but continued to do so.
A three-judge appellate panel unanimously affirmed on Tuesday.
"Dispatchers do not have the 'responsibility to engage in fire suppression,'" wrote Judge Harry Pregerson for the Pasadena panel. "The term most logically refers to those who are dispatched to the fire scene and actively engage the fire. Plaintiff dispatchers, working from the City Hall basement, do not suppress the fire; they send firefighters to the scene to suppress the fire."
Pregerson added that the paramedics likewise "do none of the activities normally associated with suppressing a fire."
The city's behavior was willful because it had lost a similar court case involving dual-trained paramedics in 2002, Pregerson found.
"Yet at no time thereafter did the city take any steps to obtain an opinion from the Department of Labor regarding plaintiffs' positions, although it had done so as to other employees," Pregerson wrote. "Ignoring these red flags and failing to make an effort to examine the positions at issue in this case show willfulness."
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