The city of New Orleans may be responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay to firefighters who have filled in for their higher-paid superiors but received only their regular pay for those hours.

A report by the Civil Service Department, presented at today’s Civil Service Commission meeting, found nearly 7,000 instances of firefighters stepping up to work as apparatus operators and captains. The staff recommended that they be paid for the work. The report, which was not immediately made available to the public, dates to 2013, staff members told the commission. The commission took no action on the report, at the request of Fire Department Superintendent Tim McConnell, who said he needs to review the report further.

Asked by Commissioner Ronald McClain how much paying the workers would cost, Civil Service Department staffer Robert Hagmann said he had not done all the math.

“Best guess would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Hagmann said.

McConnell and Senior Chief Deputy City Attorney Cherrelle Simms, a lawyer in the City Attorney’s Office, said the city plans to give firefighters additional pay in the future, but they balked at applying the pay retroactively.

“Robert said it could be a couple hundred thousand. I don’t know what it is. It could be a couple million,” McConnell said. “If the cost is, whatever it ends up being, it’s coming out of the budget. I don’t have the budget.”

McClain responded: “Maybe someone can control that by dumping some more money in his budget. But that’s the only way it’s going to happen.”

McConnell and Simms also disputed the numbers in the report, saying that even those employees who did step up may not qualify for additional pay under the city’s Civil Service Rules.

In order to receive pay for temporary work in a higher classification, the rules require that they fill in for a “budgeted vacancy,” meaning a position that is supposed to be filled but is not. However, in many cases, employees were filling in for others who were on a workers compensation or military leave, for example.

Hagmann said that while those situations may not technically constitute a vacancy, it is effectively a vacancy because such a leave could go on for months.

Another issue: The city’s budget is not static. The number of budgeted positions in a department may be subject to change as employees quit or retire but are not replaced. The fire department, in particular, has seen its budgeted personnel decrease sharply year over year to reflect attrition.

Commissioner Joseph Clark, reading from the report, said that fire department regulations require firefighters to fill in for supervisors when needed.

“Legally and morally,” Clark said, they should be paid for taking that responsibility. Clark said the rule on budgeted vacancies should be changed.

Firefighters union chief Nick Felton said any firefighter working as a captain, even temporarily, is subject to discipline as a captain should something go wrong under his watch.

“If they drop the ball, they’re going to charge them as a captain. We’re sitting up here arguing little nuances in the law,” Felton said. “Come on people. They’ve got to get paid.”

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...