A lawsuit filed a decade ago got the Emergency Services Department to update its payroll system, but that hasn’t fixed the problem.

More than 240 current and former emergency medical technicians and paramedics are suing the City and County of Honolulu, saying they weren’t paid overtime over three years.

The suit alleges the city failed to properly track and calculate overtime hours, resulting in workers not being paid on time, if at all. The total amount allegedly owed remains to be determined.

The class-action lawsuit, which demands a “complete and accurate accounting” of compensation owed according to its original filing last September, was updated a second time Aug. 29 with more plaintiffs.

The problem, according to one of the plaintiffs: “They have to enter everything manually into the payroll system,” said Sonya Austin, an EMS supervisor who has been an EMT and paramedic for 24 years.

Sonya Austin and more than 300 other emergency workers sued the City and County of Honolulu in 2012 for unpaid overtime. She said the same error occurred this time around. (Courtesy: Sonya Austin)

Honolulu lawyer Chasid Sapolu, who is representing the plaintiffs, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Ryan Lufkin, a lawyer in Portland, Oregon, who is working with Sapolu, said he had nothing to add beyond what was filed in the lawsuit.

Ian Santee, the deputy director of the Honolulu Emergency Services Department, said he couldn’t discuss specifics because of the lawsuit.

“Our personnel do work very hard for the pay that they deserve,” Santee said. “We are looking through the possible issues.”

“We have a system in place where overtime is documented,” he said. “I can’t confirm anything about what was or was not tracked properly.” 

The city’s attorneys filed a response to an earlier version of the lawsuit, denying allegations that it failed to pay overtime.

“The City intends to rely on the defense that it paid any and all overtime compensation owed to its employees and is not liable for any further payments to Plaintiff,” the response said.

EMTs and paramedics in Honolulu frequently work overtime.

“It is a lot because we are so short. So some people work overtime every single day, and some don’t do any,” Austin said, adding that payroll staff “miss a little bit here and there.”

“People who work a lot of overtime have more mistakes,” she added.

Ocean Safety Lifeguard Deputy Director Ian Santee portable container oxygen that is moved with a patient as they are transported from the Ambulance into the Hospital
Honolulu Emergency Medical Services Deputy Director Ian Santee said, “Our personnel do work very hard for the pay that they deserve,” but declined to discuss specifics. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

The problem occurred despite efforts to fix the overtime-tracking system after a similar lawsuit more than a decade ago.

In 2012, Austin, whose last name was then Adams, and more than 70 other ambulance workers sued the city for neglecting to pay them overtime. After five years of litigation, the number of plaintiffs had surpassed 300 and the city was ordered to pay nearly $900,000, plus $250,000 in legal fees.

The court appointed a certified public accountant to serve as a special master, who wrote in a court filing that the city had “made good faith efforts” by adopting a new electronic time-recording system for EMS “as a consequence of this litigation.”

That new payroll system, called Kronos, was supposed to fix the problem, Austin said.

“But because it’s only for us and not the city payroll, they still have to do the exact same thing that they did when the first lawsuit happened,” Austin said. Payroll workers still made errors transferring the overtime data because the rest of the city was not using the new system, she said.

In an emailed statement, Santee confirmed that the department uses Kronos, that it “does not currently interface into the City’s legacy time capture system,” and that staff must manually enter it into the City’s system. Despite that, he said, Kronos has “alleviated past payroll issues.”

“I’m a paramedic. I know how much drugs to give when your heart’s not going. I can do CPR in my sleep. Been doing it for 24 years. I don’t feel like I should have to check my paycheck and see if I got paid correctly, and they did not teach us how to do that,” Austin said.

The saga began for Austin back in 2007, when she was preparing to go on vacation and decided to make some extra spending money working overtime. When her check arrived, she couldn’t believe what she saw.

“I thought I should have got paid more,” she said.

Austin, after a lengthy review, found that she hadn’t been paid $2,000 in overtime she had accrued in the past six months. After raising her concerns, she got paid. But the problem continued. She checked another four more times over the next six years and found she was shorted $10,000.

“After that fifth one, now I got pissed off,” Austin said. “I was angry, angry, angry. I started telling everyone at work about it.”

Between 2010 and 2012, 50 of her colleagues asked her to go through their timesheets to find how much overtime they were owed. The smallest amount owed was around $2,000; the largest was around $30,000. In 2012, they sued the City.

Austin didn’t think she would still be fighting for her overtime pay after all this time.

“It’s painful now because it’s been over 10, 15 years maybe I’ve been doing this,” she said.

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