A group of about 100 D.C. Fire and EMS employees joined a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court, seeking $100 million from the city.
The lawsuit accuses D.C. of illegally depriving fire department employees of earned retirement benefits. Benefits meant for workers have been “illegally diverted to other uses, including the purchase of equipment,” according to the suit.
“Despite multiple dozens of years of service to the city, they basically have no retirement benefits,” said Pam Keith, an attorney who filed the lawsuit. “They will either have to work another 15 or 20 years or pay for their own retirement.”
The dispute stems from a merger in 2006, in which EMS workers and firefighters were transitioned into a single agency. Employees with EMS were told that if they agreed to go through training and become firefighters, they would ultimately be able to receive firefighter retirement benefits, with their years as EMS workers being added to their time as firefighters.
In other words, if someone worked for 10 years as an EMS employee and then became a firefighter for 10 additional years, they would be treated as if they had worked 20 years in total as a firefighter.
However, according to the lawsuit, the employees who made the transition to firefighter are now being told their time as EMS workers will not be factored into their retirement benefits.
“When that proved to be either too expensive or just not plausible, because the funds to do so were mismanaged, the city decided to renege on its promises,” Keith said. “That’s why this class action was filed.”
Firefighter Ricardo Clark, one of the employees included in the lawsuit, said he’d worked for 28 years with EMS before switching to become a firefighter in 2016.
Clark said he expected to be nearing retirement by now, but the department is now telling him that his 28 years do not count, and that he’ll need to work for another 19 years in order to receive full retirement benefits.
“It hurts to work in the city all these years and to be treated like this,” said Clark, who is 53 years old. “My 28 years was taken away from me.”
The lawsuit alleges violation of the law, breach of enforceable promises and intentional race discrimination.
“The overwhelming majority of the people that were affected by the decision in the mismanagement of retirement funds are African American and women,” Keith said.
In response to a request for comment, D.C. Fire and EMS referred WTOP to the D.C. attorney general’s office, which said it could not comment “at this time.”
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