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More than 2,000 state firefighters who attended the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection academy over the past five years will benefit from a $4.1 million agreement awarding them back wages for extra hours they put in during their training at the Amador County site.
The agreement is another milestone in the department’s recovery from the scandal it experienced in 2014 when a Cal Fire academy instructor murdered his girlfriend.
The scrutiny Sarah Douglas’ death brought on the academy led Cal Fire to discipline 15 firefighters for other kinds of misconduct, and exposed confusion about the schedule. Some cadets believed they were off duty at times of the alleged misconduct, Cal Fire Local 2881 rank-and-file Director Tim Edwards said.
Aside from awarding back pay, the settlement between the department and the union defines the hours that firefighter cadets are considered “on duty” during the six- to seven-week programs Cal Fire runs at the academy. From now on, their day begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m.
Before the agreement, fire cadets were considered on duty for 16 hours a day beginning at 8 a.m. After midnight, most of them were sleeping but technically there were no restrictions on their time. They were paid for the 16-hour workdays, and not for time after midnight.
The union dispute originated from complaints that academy instructors were waking up firefighters and assigning them tasks as early as 5:30 a.m. — about two and a half hours before the official work day for cadets began.
The early hours became an issue in 2014 when former Battalion Chief Orville “Moe” Fleming murdered Douglas and investigators sought to clean up the academy where he worked, punishing firefighters for drinking after hours or other misconduct.
Edwards said some firefighters believed they were off duty in some circumstances that got them in trouble because they thought the clock on their 16-hour workday began when they started performing tasks at the direction of their instructors. For instance, some of them thought they were free to do as they pleased as early as 10 p.m. if they were up and working by 6 a.m.
“There was a lot of confusion about whether these guys were on duty or off duty,” Edwards said.
The department sought to punish some of them for any misconduct that occurred before midnight, which is when their workday was supposed to end assuming they got started at 8 a.m., Edwards said.
“If you’re going to say that and use it in discipline, then you have to pay them overtime” for the two hours firefighters were working before 8 a.m., Edwards said.
Cal Fire declined to comment on the agreement.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration signed off on the settlement in March. Since then, the union has notified firefighters who are eligible to receive the money.
The State Controller’s Office is preparing to distribute the wages. The average check is expected to be about $1,600, although it could vary depending on the length of the firefighter’s academy stay.
“For us, this was a fairly clear case of people being required to perform work outside of their duty hours,” said Gary Messing, the union’s attorney.