Lawsuit alleges upwards of $20,000 pay discrepancies within St. George Fire Dept.

"There is no wrongdoing here. I think this is about control." ~ St. George Fire Chief

Three men named in an ongoing lawsuit are up for reappointments at tonight’s council meeting in East Baton Rouge Parish.

David Carnes, Christopher Corzo & Johnny Suchy are hoping to get reappointed to the St. George Fire Protection District Board of Commissioners for a 2-year term each.

However, all three are defendants in a suit filed by the union (Local 4524) for the St. George Firefighters demanding fair and equal pay for all firefighters. Union leaders allege the ‘prejudice’ and ‘preferential pay’ for specific people has been under the watch of Carnes, Corzo and Suchy while they were on the St. George Fire Protection Board. 

In response, St. George Fire Chief Gerald Tarleton said, “Board members are not the appointing authority. No one hires anyone but me. Their job is governance and they’ve governed us through some difficult times. Their appointment tonight has nothing to do with the lawsuit. These three board members, if they’re named in the lawsuit and they’re not reappointed tonight, are they taken out of the lawsuit then? The three new board members, if they’re appointed, would they be added to the lawsuit and be sued by the individuals trying to get them appointed?”

Henry Olinde is defending the three men, St. George Fire Chief Tarleton as well as the St. George Fire Dept. 

“That is stupid. The only reason why the union named them in the lawsuit is because they don’t like these guys and they have manufactured an argument against them. They are trying to manipulate the fire district, the council and the public and that’s the kind of stuff that gets people a bad name and if they get one, they deserve it,” said Olinde.

The lawsuit started on July 23, 2021 with the St. George Professional Firefighters Association Local 4524 (the union) suing the current St. George Fire Chief Gerald Tarleton and the St. George Fire Protection District No. 2.

The basis of the suit is asking the fire department and the chief to pay all firefighters what state law has set as their salaries. Any firefighters who were not paid up to par with state law, the suit is asking for backpay for the past three years for all affected employees.

“There’s no wrongdoing here. It’s how we’ve built a place. For 25 years, when we hire a person, we see what a person is making and we try to make them an offer 7% higher for a competitive offer. There’s nothing that prohibits it. There’s not much to say about it,” said Chief Tarleton. “As for the allegations, nothing has happened. I think this is more about control.”

According to Louisiana law, RS 33:1992 (A), minimum salaries are already set for firemen/women, engineers, lieutenants, captains, battalion chiefs, mechanics, superintendent, fire alarm operator or dispatcher and a fire inspector at a fire department. However, according to the lawsuit, not everyone is paid according to what their pay scale should be at the St. George Fire Department. Union leaders say it’s based on preferential treatment allegedly at the hands of the chief and board members.

“I’m puzzled. Many people want to work in St. George. Not only do we comply with the law, but we do way more than the law requires,” said Olinde. 

To break down the law, firemen/women are to receive a monthly salary.

  • Engineers get at least 10% above a firefighter’s pay
  • Lieutenants get at least 15% above a firefighters pay
  • Captains get at least 25% above a firefighter’s pay
  • Battalion chiefs and district chiefs get at least 40% above a firefighter’s pay
  • Assistant chiefs and deputy chiefs get at least 50% above a firefighter’s pay
  • Mechanics or assistant mechanics get at least 25% above a firefighter’s pay
  • A superintendent of fire alarm system get at least 40% above a firefighter’s pay
  • Fire alarm operators or dispatchers get at least 25% above a firefighter’s pay
  • Fire inspectors get at least 25% above a firefighter’s pay

The lawsuit points out specific examples of pay discrepancies. Seven firefighters were hired in 2020 with their pay ranging anywhere between $42,483 as the lowest to $64,575 being the highest starting salary.

READ LAWSUIT

In comparison though, a firefighter who has been working at the St. George Fire Department for the past 18 years is making $20,000 less according to his 2020 base pay of $43,694.

“Without knowing the specifics of that firefighter, I can’t tell you. A lot depends on the training, certification and experience of the firefighter,” said Olinde. “It does add up when you look at the steps on the pay scale, which the union is leaving out. If there’s a firefighter on step 10 and a captain who is on step 1 of the pay scale, there’s going to be a difference in pay.”

Plus, the suit points out that firefighters hired in 2020 are making significantly more than fire lieutenants and captains who have been on the job for several years when state law requires higher ranking firefighters get paid more than firefighters.

Compared to the highest starting firefighter salary of $64,575, a lieutenant of 9 years is making just over $45,000 when he should be paid at least 15% over a firefighter’s pay. In comparison, a captain of 9 years is making $58,875. That’s still less than the starting pay while state law says captains should make at least 25% more.

“They’re not comparing apples to apples because you have every individual’s experience and what they bring to the table so they can be properly compensated,” said Chief Tarleton.  

“We disagree completely. We not only pay our employees with accordance to the statute, but we give them better pay and benefits than the state requires. It’s why we are one of the most competitive fire departments in the state in terms of pay and benefits. St. George is a great place to work,” Olinde said in response. 

August 24, 2021, the original lawsuit was amended and 117 current and past firefighters joined.

Nov. 8, 2021, Judge Trudy White heard the case. She dismissed on prejudice that a union could not represent the firefighters. The rest of the lawsuit remains intact. That ruling is now being appealed at the First Circuit Court of Appeal. Meanwhile, the defense asked the board members names be removed from the lawsuit. Judge White denied that motion.

Meaning as of now, the three board members seeking reappointment are currently named defendants in an ongoing lawsuit. Olinde is appealing that motion.

“There is absolutely no allegation that these guys have done anything wrong. They shouldn’t even be in the lawsuit at this junction,” said Olinde.

Both appeals motions for the prosecution and defense are at the First Circuit Court of Appeal. Dates for hearings have not been set as of now.  

About Kiran Chawla 577 Articles
I'm an Emmy & Murrow Award winning investigative reporter who simply loves my job!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: