EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 29, 2014

Editorial: City gets costly lesson in back pay ruling

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Lawrence is about to get an important lesson on the need to curb public employee compensation abuse, one that could cost the city more than $1 million.

The issue centers on the ability of public employees to pile up unused vacation time, sick time, compensatory time and other perks until they are owed big payouts when they retire or otherwise leave their city jobs. It’s a practice that is virtually unheard of in private sector employment below the level of top executives, whose “golden parachutes” rightly draw customer and shareholder scorn.

Taxpayers cannot afford such largesse. Lawrence can’t afford to keep all of its fire trucks in service around the clock. Now the cash-strapped city may be forced to write big checks to former employees, some of whom haven’t worked for the city since 2010.

But pay the city will. An Appellate Court ruling recently made clear that city officials cannot deny the former employees their outrageous compensation on a whim. The city must follow the bylaws and contracts that were on the books at the time.

The lesson for Mayor Daniel Rivera: Those bylaws and contracts must change.

The court decision involves former Police Capt. Ronald Plourde, who, when he retired in 2010, had accumulated 261.5 hours of compensatory time, meaning he chose to take time off later for overtime shifts he worked rather than take the overtime pay.

But the city refused to pay him for the 261.5 hours and Plourde sued, claiming $21,099 and asking for triple damages, which employees charging certain wage and hour violations may do under state law.

Superior Court Judge Robert A. Cornetta had granted the city’s motion to dismiss and rejected Plourde’s motion to grant him the payment. But on April 9, the Appellate Court reversed that decision, saying Cornetta had misinterpreted the relevant law.

The lawsuit now returns to Superior Court where, if he prevails, Plourde may be due $63,000, which is triple damages, plus 12 percent interest and attorney fees.

The ruling may impact a number of other claims against Lawrence by former employees, some of whom were dismissed in a shake-up of department heads when former Mayor William Lantigua took office in 2010. Among these are former Director of Economic Development Thomas Schiavone, who sued the city for triple damages of $222,456, plus attorney fees, over the $74,152 he says he was owed for unused vacation, sick and personal time. The city won that case in Superior Court, but Schiavone has since appealed. Another case involves former Inspectional Services Commissioner Myles Burke, who sued the city for $58,003 in unused vacation, sick and furlough time.

Lantigua replaced these holdovers from the administration of former Mayor Michael Sullivan with his own friends and supporters. Patronage didn’t begin with the Lantigua administration, but he more so than most current municipal leaders reveled in it.

Mayor Rivera said the city will have little choice but to appeal the Plourde ruling.

“I’m not sure where we’d come up with the money,” he told reporter Douglas Moser.

The bigger task for Rivera will come in reforming city bylaws and at the negotiating table for the next round of contract talks. The days of employees piling up countless hours of unused vacation and sick time must end. The public can’t afford the ride on this gravy train any longer.