Who should be paid overtime and a thank you to a paramedic for saving a life discussed at Sumter County BOC Regular Meeting

Published 5:43 pm Wednesday, May 18, 2022

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AMERICUS – At its monthly regular meeting on Tuesday, May 17, the Sumter County Board of Commissioners (BOC) had a discussion on whether or not the positions of the three battalion chiefs of Sumter County Fire and Rescue should be exempt from having to be paid overtime, or non-exempt. This was something that was also discussed at the BOC’s work session the week before.

All of the commissioners were present at this meeting.

Board Chairman Mark Waddell stated that back in 2019, the BOC revisited all of the job descriptions and salary grades for all employees in the county and at that time, Waddell said, there were several employees in several county departments, including the sheriff’s office and the fire department, that fell under moving from the category of being non-exempt from overtime rules to being exempt. Under the current system, non-exempt employees of the county, who are paid an hourly wage, are eligible to be paid and accrue overtime. Exempt employees are paid a salary and are not eligible to be paid overtime.

Waddell went on to say that at last week’s work session, the big topic of discussion was the overtime numbers that were there. Waddell also stated that at the BOC’s annual retreat at South Georgia Tech on Saturday, May 14, he had mentioned that he had gone online to the Department of Labor and pulled some information that talked about the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). He stated that the battalion chiefs, along with Sumter County Fire and Rescue Chief Jerry Harmon himself, all fight fires and perform rescue operations, such as extracting victims. “In looking at that, from my standpoint, even though we went back and we voted back then (2019) to move from non-exempt to exempt, we’re still paying these positions (three battalion chief positions) as non-exempt,” Waddell said. In other words, Waddell stated that the three battalion chief positions, which were initially moved to exempt status, were changed back to non-exempt status. He went on to mention that County Administrator Rayetta Volley and Human Resources Director Deatrice Harris both spoke with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) about the matter. Harris stated that she had spoken with the ACCG’s attorney and was told that if this is being done on a continuous basis, meaning that every time there is a fire, they go out and they are fighting fires, then they can stay at non-exempt. However, if the battalion chiefs are not doing it on a continuous basis, which was in the new job description, then the county is at liberty to change them to exempt status.

County Attorney Kimberly Reid stated to the BOC that the FLSA is designed to prevent employers from avoiding paying overtime for somebody who deserves it.

“In other words, the minimum requirement is if they don’t meet that definition of exempt, you’ve got to pay them overtime,” Reid said. “The flip side of that is just because somebody qualifies as exempt, it doesn’t mean you have to designate them as exempt. That’s in your discretion, or you could do it either way. In other words, that would be going above and beyond what was required under the law, but you’re allowed to do that if you want to,” Reid continued.

Harris responded that Chief Harmon had asked her to review this issue of exempt versus non-exempt. “In reviewing that, we came back to that due to the overtime, that was a concern, so that’s why we looked into the situation,” Harris said.

Commissioner Jesse Smith asked Harmon why his battalion chiefs had to fight fires and Harmon replied that his battalion chiefs are actually assigned to the rescue truck. “We don’t have but two personnel at our main station,” Harmon said. Harmon added that his department only has five firefighters on duty because the inmates that they were using are back in jail. Smith asked Harmon if he has any volunteer firefighters and he replied that he does, but he relies on his paid staff during the daytime hours. “One paid staff is assigned to the fire engine. The battalion chiefs are assigned to the rescue truck,” Harmon said. He went on to say that the battalion chiefs have to be involved in rescue operations, such as extrication. “If that engine is out on a medical call and something else comes up and we have a second call, then the battalion chiefs are our frontline firefighters at that point,” Harmon said.

Waddell suggested that the BOC should not just look at changing the battalion chiefs’ positions, but other positions as well, such as those in the Sheriff’s Office. “Just so that we’re being consistent across the board, we need to look at all these positions to make sure we are covering ourselves and not just trying to chip away at one thing that’s on here,” Waddell said. “We’ve got a list of everyone who went and earned or moved to exempt.” He added that if there are employees in managerial or supervisory roles that are performing the duties that are normally performed by the non-exempt employees, then those positions need to be changed back to non-exempt status. Deatrice Harris replied that the Captains at the Corrections Office are on exempt status, but because that department is short staffed, they are operating as corrections officers as well. “That would be another one we need to look at as well, since we are looking at everybody,” Harris said.

No vote took place concerning this issue, but Waddell stated that the BOC would go back and look at all the positions and determine which ones should be exempt and which ones should be non-exempt.

In a somewhat related issue, The BOC heard from Charles Varnum, a citizen who lives in Plains. During the Appearances section of the meeting in which regular citizens can come before the BOC and say whatever is on their mind, Varnum mentioned that he had suffered a severe laceration to his right arm in a freak accident at home that almost caused him to bleed to death. Varnum stated that he wasn’t able to call 911 because he could not use either hand, but made his way to a local fire station where a paramedic by the name of Carlos treated him. Varnum praised Carlos for saving his life and for his professionalism in treating his injuries, but expressed disappointment in Gold Star Ambulance service not only for the 45-minute wait time, but also the lack of professionalism displayed by the ambulance paramedics. However, Varnum said that when he arrived at the hospital, they got him into surgery within 10 minutes. Varnum added that he called Sumter County Fire and Rescue (SCFR) to give them the report that Carlos had saved his life.

SCFR Chief Jerry Harmon said that he and his battalion chiefs are looking at coming up with some criteria for a Life Saver Reward and that Carlos will be receiving such an award.