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Topeka fire officials get OT despite guidelines

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Several high-ranking officials in the Topeka Fire Department have been collecting overtime despite federal labor guidelines that say they could be exempt, according to a newspaper report.

Eleven battalion chiefs and shift commanders earned a collective $145,338 in overtime in 2012, the Topeka Capital-Journal (http://bit.ly/14RtrY7 ) reported.

Jacque Russell, human resources director for Topeka, said under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, the officials could be exempt from overtime. Russell said fire department managers have received overtime for at least six years, likely stemming from an effort to maintain salary differences between management and non-management positions.

"We as an organization allow them to receive overtime compensation," Russell said. "However, based on their duties and responsibilities, under FLSA they certainly meet the test for being exempt for overtime."

The FLSA establishes wage and overtime standards for private and public employees, and exempts management-level positions from overtime pay. According to the FLSA, managers are salaried employees who perform duties primarily dealing with supervising people, ensuring safety and allocating resources.

In fire departments in other cities, including Overland Park, Shawnee and Wichita, positions with equal or fewer responsibilities than Topeka's shift commanders and battalion chiefs can't receive overtime.

Harold Cohen, a national fire and emergency medical services consultant, said it isn't common for chief-level officers to receive overtime.

"There's no standard rank, but when you're above a company level officer, when you're in charge of more than one station house, that generally moves you up to exempt status," Cohen said.

Fire Chief Greg Bailey said the concern was "worth checking into."

"Obviously this is not our area of expertise," Bailey said. "We want to be compliant, and I'm confident everyone above us wants to be as well."

Fire officials have considered making battalion chiefs and shift commanders ineligible for overtime in an effort to be more efficient with taxpayer dollars, Bailey said. However, he said he'd worry about the caliber and number of applicants who would apply for the management positions.

"What does the rate of pay need to be set at to make it fair and just?" Bailey asked. "I contend it's probably arbitrary, but how do we get to that place?"